A new smokestack cleans Baltimore's air

Constellation power plant completes $875 million 'scrubber' project

  • Constellation environmental official Kenneth S. Johnson displays a ball of gypsum, a useful byproduct of the scrubber's filtering process.
Constellation environmental official Kenneth S. Johnson… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
February 20, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler

A new smokestack is not usually cause for celebration among environmentalists. But the 400-foot stack spouting white clouds at Brandon Shores power plant represents a quantum leap in cleaning Baltimore's air, not another source of pollution.

Constellation Energy has just completed work on $875 million worth of pollution "scrubbers" at its 26-year-old coal-fired power plant on the Patapsco River. One of the plant's two steam-generating units resumed operation with the new air-quality controls in December, and the second is cranking up now. The white clouds rising from the stack are almost entirely water vapor. A pair of 700-foot stacks nearby, which until recently belched toxic, acidic smoke from the power plant, are quiet.

Activists not prone to praising power companies are grudgingly expressing appreciation, though they point out that the plant improvements were made to comply with a nearly four-year-old state law intended to make the air healthier to breathe.

Woody Bowen, 67, who lives nearby, calls the three-year pollution-control project at the plant "a major, major thing." The president of the Olde Brooklyn Park Improvement Association says he's looking forward to "a cleaner sky and less contaminants coming down in the community."

There's a lot to clean. Until recently, Brandon Shores, along with Constellation's H.A. Wagner power plant on the same 360-acre riverfront tract, have together been the nation's leading emitter of hazardous air pollutants, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

But that's likely to change with the installation of the twin scrubbers at Brandon Shores and pollution controls put in at Constellation's other coal-burning plants in the area. The Baltimore-based power company has invested more than $1.5 billion to comply with Maryland's Healthy Air Act, which when it was passed in 2006 was billed by state officials as the toughest power-plant pollution law on the East Coast.

Under the law, the state's power plants were required to reduce harmful emissions by 70 percent to 80 percent by this year, and by 75 percent to 90 percent by 2013. Targeted are releases of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury - byproducts of burning coal that contribute to environmental and health problems in the state.

Nitrogen oxides contribute to ground-level ozone pollution or smog that can make hot summer air difficult or painful to breathe. They harm water quality in the Chesapeake Bay as they drop from the air. Sulfur dioxide is a major source of fine-particle pollution that can cause breathing difficulties or premature death.

Mercury is a toxic metal that, in small doses, can damage the brain, nervous system and other organs. It accumulates in fish tissue, prompting state health officials to warn against eating too many fish caught locally.

Power plants are a leading source of such pollutants. Activists pressed in 2006 to get Maryland to crack down and bring the state's air quality in line with federal health standards.

George S. "Tad" Aburn, director of air management for the Maryland Department of the Environment, calls the Healthy Air Act "the most significant pollution-control program we've ever implemented."

He recalled that Constellation and Atlanta-based Mirant Corp., which operates coal-burning plants elsewhere in the state, had resisted the legislation and argued that the reductions could not be achieved according to the timetable set in the law.

"All those horror stories did not happen," Aburn said. Though state regulators frequently spar with power plant owners and fine or sue them, Aburn noted, "in this case, Constellation and Mirant did a very good job."

Six scrubbers were required. Besides the two installed at Brandon Shores, Mirant put in "flue-gas desulfurization" facilities at its Chalk Point, Dickerson and Morgantown power plants. The company said those and other pollution controls cost it nearly $1.7 billion.

Some environmentalists say it's about time. Scrubbers have been required for years on new coal-burning power plants elsewhere, and even on some particularly large or polluting older ones. But until the Healthy Air Act was passed in 2006, none had been ordered in Maryland.

"This means Maryland will jump from the back of the pack to kind of the head of the class," said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington group.

Installing the scrubbers was a mammoth undertaking. Two thousand contractors and construction personnel worked on the project, with up to 1,600 of them at the plant at one time, said Joseph Kappes, the construction oversight manager.

"It was like building a small city," Aburn said.

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