Air conditions

May 31, 2006

Yesterday was a Code Orange day for air pollution in the Baltimore-Washington area. That means young children and people with breathing problems, including asthma, should not be spending a lot of time running around outdoors. It's the second-to-worst air quality rating, and its appearance so early in the year may bode ill for the future. But there are even more ominous warnings in the air. An investigation by The Sun's Tom Pelton into the state's highly polluting coal-fired power plants suggests that under the Ehrlich administration, "weak enforcement has gotten weaker," as one former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official assessed it.

Two months ago, we praised Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for his belated support of the Healthy Air Act, a law that imposes tough new standards on these same power plant emissions. But Mr. Pelton's investigation of six years of enforcement records raises new questions about the Maryland Department of the Environment's commitment to enforcing air pollution standards of any kind. What good are new rules if polluters are rarely, if ever, given much more than a reprimand?

The harm posed by lax enforcement is clear. Over the last three years, the amount of pollution churned out by these aging, coal-fired plants has increased 3 percent over the previous three years. That may not sound like much, but it represents more than 32,000 tons of pollution pumped into the air. Yet even when these plants report violations, the state rarely takes action. MDE officials would have us believe it's a mere coincidence that the air is becoming more polluted at a time when polluters aren't being fined (aside from the one Western Maryland plant that was slapped with a $20,000 fine in March).

Mr. Ehrlich claims to promote a business-friendly environment. Surely, that doesn't mean he wants an environment unfit for breathing. If the MDE seemed a bit mild-mannered under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, it's more like a tepid milquetoast today. There's a distinct lack of enforcement resources and a regulatory culture that puts the interests of large corporations such as Constellation Energy Group and Atlanta-based Mirant Corp. ahead of the people who live in Maryland.

Like Mr. Ehrlich's Public Service Commission, MDE looks to be far too closely tied to the utilities it's supposed to be regulating. We have had similar reservations about the Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Insurance Administration from time to time. These alleged watchdogs are not just lapdogs; they're usually regular golfing buddies, too. Maryland's chief economic assets are its workers and its natural resources. Policies that do harm to both aren't "friendly" by any measure.

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