State penalizing coal power plants

In reversal of past policy, Constellation Energy is fined

sun followup

May 25, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun Reporter

In a major shift, Gov. Martin O'Malley's environmental agency has decided to enforce air pollution rules at coal-fired power plants that were routinely ignored under past administrations.

The Maryland Department of the Environment announced yesterday a settlement with Constellation Energy that will impose $100,000 in penalties and require $9 million in pollution control equipment at its H. A. Wagner and Brandon Shores power plants in Anne Arundel County, and the C. P. Crane power plant in eastern Baltimore County.

The agency is pushing for a similar cleanup agreement with the state's other major owner of power plants - Mirant Corp. - to reduce excessive darkness, or "opacity," of smoke at three of its generators, said Julie Oberg, spokeswoman for the MDE.

The dark smoke contains microscopic soot particles, which can cause asthma and heart attacks, and mercury, an element implicated in brain damage in developing babies.

"The majority of Maryland citizens live in areas that do not meet federal air quality standards for fine particulate matter," said Shari T. Wilson, secretary of the environment. "This consent decree requires important reductions."

An investigation by The Sun in May last year revealed that the state's environmental agency had ignored 14,579 opacity violations at Constellation's three plants since Jan 1, 2003, and 13,663 violations at Mirant's three power plants in Prince George's, Montgomery and Charles counties during the same period.

The state agency had long chosen not to enforce power plants' limits for opacity, except when the violations were very frequent.

Environmental groups praised the O'Malley administration yesterday for reversing the policy of his predecessors and deciding to enforce even routine opacity violations at the power plants.

"You hear so much about being tough on crime, it's good to see a little toughness on environmental crime," said Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland, an advocacy group.

Lee Walker Oxenham, director of the Patapsco River Conservation Assocation, which under a different name in 2005 filed notice of intent to sue Brandon Shore for opacity violations, said there is a significant change in the way O'Malley's appointees run the MDE.

Under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - a Republican defeated by Democrat O'Malley in last year's election - former Constellation officials held high-ranking positions and rarely fined power plants.

"In the old days ... there was incredible cronyism," said Oxenham. "It's very good to see that power plants are being held to high standards at last."

Rob Gould, a spokesman for Constellation, said Brandon Shores also plans to install a $1 billion pollution-control device called a scrubber to meet the requirements of a state air quality law passed last year.

Ehrlich lobbied against the Healthy Air Act but signed it after the General Assembly passed the bill by veto-proof margins.

"This was more of an enforcement protocol issue more than anything else, and it's resolved and we are now in compliance," said Gould of the settlement, filed in Anne Arundel Circuit Court yesterday.

In addition to installing new pollution-control equipment, Constellation will contribute $100,000 to a project at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge that will help restore tidal marshlands flooded by rising sea levels.

A United Nations panel of scientists has concluded that carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants and other sources is forming an insulating blanket around the earth's atmosphere, raising temperatures, melting glaciers and expanding the volume of the oceans.

Environmentalists blame the rising water levels for killing marsh grasses at Blackwater and turning wetlands into open water.

Typically, restoring wetlands involves building artificial islands and seeding marsh grass. Requiring Constellation to contribute money to help the restoration process is part of the O'Malley administration's focus on global warming, said Oberg, the MDE spokeswoman.

She noted that the governor successfully pushed this spring for a law that will require all new cars and trucks sold in Maryland to cut emissions of global-warming gases by one-third.

In addition, under O'Malley the state has joined a coalition of Northeastern states that have pledged to force their power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent.

"The governor signed into law the Clean Cars Act, as well as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, so we are trying to do what we can to address global warming," Oberg

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