Four environmental groups argued in federal court yesterday that Maryland has given a "free pass" to the state's largest power plant to emit air pollution, allowing it to violate its permit more than 14,200 times over four years.
But Atlanta-based Mirant Corp., which owns the Chalk Point power plant in Prince George's County, told Judge J. Frederick Motz in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that the Maryland Department of the Environment diligently enforced air pollution laws by imposing a $75,000 fine this summer.
In addition, Mirant attorney Deborah Jennings said, a consent agreement signed by state environmental officials and the company Aug. 29 requires Chalk Point's two oil-burning electricity generators to switch to cleaner-burning natural gas during the summer.
"It's not a sweetheart deal," Jennings said of the agreement. "It is very onerous for Mirant to be compelled to burn natural gas, because it's very expensive."
Barry Neuman, lawyer for the the Environmental Integrity Project and three other advocacy groups, said the state's consent agreement should be tougher because it does not require the cleaner fuel in the winter, and the "paltry" fine will allow thousands of more violations.
The more than 14,000 permit violations alleged by the organization between January 2002 and June 2006 were for excessive "opacity," or darkness of the smoke pouring out of plant's stacks.
"The consent agreement does not require compliance with the opacity standards," said Neuman, who used the words "free pass" to describe the state's lax approach. "Without enforcement of the opacity limits, a facility is under no day-to-day requirement to control particulate [fine soot] emissions ... and these are essential to the Clean Air Act and the health of the people of Prince George's County."
An investigation by The Sun published in May found 8,833 opacity violations at Chalk Point from January 2003 through December 2005, without any penalties from the state.
The environmental groups filed a legal notice in May saying they intended to sue Mirant over the violations within 60 days. But the day before the groups filed their suit, Mirant signed the consent agreement with the state, and Mirant now argues that the environmental groups have no legal standing to sue because the state has already punished the company. Motz said yesterday that he will issue a written decision by February on whether the lawsuit should proceed.
Robert Ballinger, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, did not immediately answer questions yesterday. In June, an MDE spokesman told The Sun that the MDE has not taken action against all opacity violations at power plants "because of the sheer volume" of them.
At the time, agency officials said that the state has consistently tried since 1990 to act against plants that have exceeded their opacity limits more than 5 percent of the time in a quarter.
Eric Schaeffer, a former top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official who now runs the Environmental Integrity Project, said yesterday that the policy is not good enough because it allows thousands of violations a year.
"There are a lot of violations" at Chalk Point, Schaeffer said. "They've got to comply all of the time" with opacity limits, not just most of the time, he said.
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.
In the three years after that, the total amount of air pollution coming from Chalk Point rose by 26 percent, according to The Sun's review of state records.