Ehrlich assailed over his record on air pollution

O'Malley and Duncan say the governor is overly friendly to power industry

May 31, 2006|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

The two leading Democratic candidates for governor decried yesterday the Ehrlich administration's failure to penalize power plants for violating air pollution laws and pledged to reduce the industry's influence over state government.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was too friendly to the power industry when he appointed three former officials of Constellation Energy, the state's largest owner of power plants, to key jobs at the Maryland Department of the Environment, which regulates the industry's pollution.

"We need to stop the revolving door of people coming out of the industry and immediately going to guard the henhouse," O'Malley said. "I would do everything in my power to enforce the letter of the law to make our air and water cleaner."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, also running as a Democrat for governor, said Ehrlich made a similar error when he appointed a Public Service Commission that hired two former BGE officials and then approved a 72 percent electricity rate increase for BGE customers. BGE is owned by Constellation.

"We need regulators who are not tied to the industry, who can set the right policies and enforce the regulations," said Duncan. "If we just enforced the existing environmental laws and regulations, we could do a lot to clean up the state," he said.

The two Democrats were responding to a report in The Sun that Maryland's environmental agency has for years ignored pollution violations at the state's seven oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants, but there have been even fewer penalties under Ehrlich.

The administration of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, imposed $350,000 in fines to these seven plants during his final three years despite numerous violations. The Ehrlich administration has issued $20,000 in fines against the plants since taking office, even though pollution from them has gotten worse, records show.

For instance, pollution from the state's largest plant, Chalk Point in Prince George's County, soared 26 percent over the past three years as the state failed to take action against 8,833 permit violations, state records show.

A spokesman for Ehrlich dismissed the complaints as "background noise" that should not distract from the governor's positive environmental record.

Spokesman Henry Fawell said Ehrlich deserves credit for signing the Maryland Healthy Air Act this year. The law will require a more than two-thirds reduction in air pollution by 2010 from the state's seven oldest coal-fired power plants.

"Governor Ehrlich fought for and signed into law the most far-reaching and ambitious air pollution controls in Maryland history," Fawell said. "The governor is a national leader in air- and water-quality improvement efforts."

But state Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said it's an "outrage" that Ehrlich is trying to claim credit for the Healthy Air Act - which he lobbied to defeat.

Before signing the bill, which passed the General Assembly by veto-proof margins, Ehrlich urged lawmakers to vote against it. The governor warned legislators March 10 that the bill would "dramatically increase the costs of electricity for consumers, force at least one power plant to close, and potentially cause rolling blackouts across Maryland."

Last year, Ehrlich's top environmental officials worked closely with Constellation Energy in a behind-the-scenes lobbying effort to kill a similar pollution control bill. Ehrlich proposed less extensive air pollution regulations.

Senate minority leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, dismissed the complaints against Ehrlich as politically motivated. He said power plants should comply with state emission limits, but added, "We need to be reasonable. We can't shut a plant down or make it not profitable for them to operate, or we'll all be in trouble."

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a power industry trade group, said customers might have to pay more for their electricity if Maryland started penalizing power plants and filing lawsuits every time their emissions were above permitted standards.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat from Southern Maryland, complained that Republican leaders are failing to protect the environment. "Neither the Bush nor Ehrlich administration are enforcing the environmental laws of our state or nation," Miller said. "Given the opportunity to side with consumers or the utility industry, these administrations always come down on the side of the utility companies."tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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