Plant faces suit over pollution

Environmental groups targeting Chalk Point


Four environmental groups sent notice to Maryland's largest power plant yesterday that they intend to sue its owner over thousands of air pollution violations linked to heart failure and asthma attacks.

The Environmental Integrity Project, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, Environment Maryland and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network said they hope to force the Atlanta-based Mirant company to install pollution-control equipment at its Chalk Point power plant in Prince George's County.

The Chalk Point plant was a focus of an investigation by The Sun of Maryland's failure to penalize companies for repeated violations at the state's seven oldest and largest coal-fired power plants.

Eric Schaeffer, director of the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project, said the groups are taking action because the Maryland Department of the Environment has failed to enforce clean air laws.

"We are filing the lawsuit because the state hasn't acted," said Schaeffer, former director of enforcement for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "The soot discharged from this plant does all kinds of bad things for public health, including cause heart attacks, asthma, bronchitis and premature deaths."

Chuck Gates, a spokesman for MDE, said the agency is reviewing Schaeffer's claims and could take enforcement action against the plant if it concludes the complaints have merit. "Eric's group has the same intent that we do, in that they are trying to keep the air clean," Gates said.

The Sun reported last month that Maryland environmental officials have for years been ignoring most air pollution violations at the state's dirtiest power plants and have become less aggressive about imposing penalties under the Ehrlich administration.

The environmental organizations said they conducted their own review of Chalk Point's records and found even more violations of opacity limits, which are restrictions on the darkness of smoke allowed to escape from the plant's stacks. The groups also said they discovered releases of toxic metals into the air - 15,471 pounds of nickel and 8,882 pounds of vanadium, which the groups say can cause lung cancer, sore throats and other illnesses.

A Harvard School of Public Health researcher, Jonathan Levy, estimated in 2002 that the pollution from Chalk Point causes 110 deaths and 4,000 asthma attacks a year. Since then, the total amount of air pollution coming from Chalk Point has risen 26 percent, according to state records.

A Mirant spokeswoman would not comment on the allegations. "Mirant is committed to doing its part to protect the environment, while providing reliable electricity for the residents of Maryland," spokeswoman Corry Leigh said in a written statement.

The violations at Chalk Point should have triggered millions of dollars in penalties from the state, Schaeffer said. They were frequent enough to cause enforcement actions under both state and federal policies.

The groups pointed to 14,062 violations at the plant - each representing six-minute periods when smoke from the plant was darker than allowed. They added up to opacity-limit violations almost 9 percent of each quarter since 2002, Schaeffer said. That was almost triple the 3 percent standard for consecutive quarters that the EPA considers a "high priority" violation.

The MDE "just waived the standard and said they weren't going to enforce it," Schaefer said. "It does raise questions about what Maryland is doing."

Gates, the MDE spokesman, said the agency hasn't taken action against all opacity violations at power plants "because of the sheer volume" of them. But he said the state, since 1990, has consistently tried to act against plants that have exceeded their opacity limits more than 5 percent of the time in a quarter.

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