Air quality looking up

Our view: Maryland has made air quality strides, but this is no time to breathe easy

May 10, 2010

The air we breathe may not the cleanest in the country, but it's getting better all the time. A recent report from the American Lung Association found the Baltimore-Washington corridor has shown improvement in air quality in recent years.

There are many reasons for this, and some have little to do with public policy decisions. The economic recession has reduced driving, industrial activity and energy consumption generally, a fact that has improved air quality in most places over the past two years. Summer weather patterns in the Northeast (fewer stationary highs that trap pollutants in hot, humid conditions) have been more favorable recently as well.

But these are not the only — or even the most critical — factors at work. Over the last decade, federal and state regulators have been gradually raising the bar for the most serious pollutants: volatile organic compounds, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide that form ground-level ozone, the main component of smog.

Maryland's coal-burning power plants have been forced to install scrubbers and selective catalytic reduction systems. Cars have become cleaner and more fuel efficient. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has imposed higher standards on Midwestern smokestacks that produce as much as half the pollution Marylanders are forced to breathe.

Officials at the Maryland Department of the Environment say the latest data they've collected suggest the air in Maryland today is cleaner than it was 20 years ago. If only the state could make the same claim about the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

The results are notable because they demonstrate that environmental successes require the kind of relentless (and often difficult) decisions that have marked the nation's fight against air pollution. The EPA forced Midwest power plants to clean up their act only after considerable political pressure was brought to bear by Northeast states.

In Annapolis, anti-pollution laws have always been controversial. Vehicle exhaust tests were strongly opposed until it became clear that the EPA was ready to impose even more onerous alternatives. The state's restrictions on power plant emissions were initially opposed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who also fought against tougher, California emission standards.

Still, even greater vigilance will be required if the Baltimore-Washington corridor is to ultimately leave the ranks of the nation's worst regions for air quality. The EPA needs to be more aggressive with upwind coal-burning power plants. There is much average Marylanders can do as well, from using their cars less and taking transit more to conserving electricity.

And air quality will never be regarded as a success story in this country until the U.S. gets serious about reducing greenhouse gases. Smog may cause immediate health problems, but climate change could prove even more catastrophic for future generations.

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