State loosens pollution rule

Healthy Air Act, if passed, would supersede

General Assembly

March 14, 2006|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

The Ehrlich administration relaxed yesterday some of the air pollution reduction requirements in the governor's new rules for coal-fired power plants, but dropped a hotly contested proposal to exempt about half of the generators from some emission limits.

The changes to the Maryland Clean Power Rule were requested by the power industry, which has been seeking weaker standards, and environmental groups, which asked for the elimination of a "gaping loophole" that exempted smaller plants from sulfur dioxide limits.

"We tried to be more reasonable," Tad Aburn, director of the air program at the Maryland Department of the Environment, said of the compromise language in the rule. "We want to meet our air quality goals without pushing plant shutdowns and affecting electric reliability."

The revised air regulations would cut mercury air pollution from the state's six largest coal-burning power plants by 75 percent by 2010, compared to the 80 percent in a January draft of the rule. Sulfur dioxide would be reduced by 80 percent by 2010, compared with an 85 percent cut in the earlier version. And nitrogen oxide pollution would be reduced by 69 percent by 2009; that figure is unchanged.

The rules would be superseded if state lawmakers approve a law, the Healthy Air Act, which covers more pollutants and power plants.

On Friday, the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee voted 7-4 in favor of the Healthy Air Act.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican whose administration lobbied with industry to kill an air pollution bill last year, has changed directions this spring and is now jockeying with the Democratic-controlled legislature to become the author of pollution limits.

Ehrlich urged lawmakers Friday to vote against the Healthy Air Act, which he suggested would be more expensive for power companies and consumers than his plan.

"If the General Assembly is truly serious about protecting the consumer, they will support my Clean Power Rule, which cuts power plant pollutants by record levels while protecting consumers from dramatic energy price spikes," Ehrlich said.

State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Democrat from Prince George's County and a sponsor of the Healthy Air Act, said yesterday that the governor's claim that possible power blackouts or rate increases could be blamed on environmental laws was false. He said such claims are part of the governor's strategy of trying to make himself look like a leader in an election year.

"That's just fear-mongering," Pinsky said. "These power plants are cash cows, and we shouldn't let them off the hook because their pollution is killing people."

Pinsky said his proposal goes beyond the Ehrlich air rules by requiring, by 2018, a 10 percent reduction in carbon dioxide, which causes global warming and rising sea levels. The proposed Healthy Air Act would also cut mercury and sulfur dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2010, and nitrogen oxide pollution by 69 percent by 2009.

The reductions in both the bill and the regulations would be achieved by the installation of roughly $1 billion worth of pollution control equipment at power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said most of these improvements will be required by federal air regulations released last spring, although state officials say their regulations are slightly stronger.

The Maryland Department of the Environment concluded its revisions of Ehrlich's proposed air regulations yesterday after an advisory committee of experts voted 8-1 to endorse it.

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