While Maryland is well positioned for complying with Environmental Protection Agency's preliminary carbon regulations, mandating a 30 percent nationwide reduction in CO2 emissions from power plants by 2030, those proposed regulations by themselves will do nothing for the dismal air quality of the Baltimore metro area because we're already largely in compliance.
Instead of the federal CO2 standard, we must focus on the state level to eliminate the toxic pollutants nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. This can only be achieved by retiring the Charles P. Crane and Herbert A. Wagner coal power plants that produce them.
An optimistic Baltimore Sun editorial ("Carbon rules can work," June 2) predicted that the new carbon protections would result in "modest" if any impact on local electricity costs thanks to the state's participation in the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, wherein CO2 'allowances' are sold at auction and the proceeds are used to promote renewable energy and supplement energy costs in low-income households." In a separate blog post June 2 ("Obama taking a cue from Maryland on climate"), Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler reported that CO2 emissions had "declined 40 percent overall since the [RGG] initiative began."
That means we've already seen the CO2 reductions others will see from the EPA regulations. Meanwhile, Maryland, and Baltimore in particular, continue to struggle with unhealthy air.
According to the EPA's Greenbook, more than 5 million Marylanders reside in areas where the air is considered unsafe to breathe. Similarly, the American Lung Association gave half of Maryland's counties an "F" grade for ozone pollution. Even more troubling, the city health department reports that Baltimore has the highest rates of both childhood and adult asthma in Maryland, and over a quarter of city high schoolers have been diagnosed with asthma at some point in their young lives. A recent MIT study, using 2005 data, concluded that more Marylanders die prematurely from air pollution than residents of any other state in the nation.
The explanation for the disparity between Maryland's leadership in reducing CO2 while it continues to produce filthy air rests, in part, with its aged, uncontrolled coal-fired power plants. Over half of those plants operate without modern pollution controls for nitrogen oxides — the precursor to ozone — and six of the 13 are in the bottom 20 percent of East Coast emitters of sulfur dioxide (SO2). EPA studies of our air attribute 44 percent of Maryland's sulfur dioxide emissions and 14 percent of nitrogen dioxide to coal plants. The burning of coal also releases toxic heavy metals including lead, mercury and arsenic, which can seriously affect the nervous system, heart, kidneys, bones and reproductive organs. While some Maryland coal power plants have state-of-the-art pollution-cutting technology, others have yet to invest in this expensive equipment. Two such plants, located in the Baltimore area, are the C.P. Crane and H.A. Wagner coal power plants.
Over the next several months, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and Gov. Martin O'Malley will address the emission issues as they relate to Crane and Wagner. According to the Chesapeake Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Crane and Wagner (located in southeastern Baltimore and northeastern Anne Arundel counties) "are two of the only coal plants in the Mid-Atlantic that operate without any post-combustion emission controls for SO2 and without a commitment by the owners to retire these plants or install adequate pollution control technologies." In response to EPA instructions to address toxic coal plant pollution, MDE initiated a process to draft rules that would require all Maryland coal plants to install and operate equipment to limit dangerous emissions. The rules are due to EPA on July 20th, and we need them to be as strong as possible to protect public health. If they are indeed strong, then Marylanders will be able to breathe easier and live healthier.
Maryland residents wishing to weigh in on the draft regulations should contact MDE Secretary Robert M. Summers (410-537-3000).
In the final analysis, the fate of Maryland's coal plants and the quality of the air we breathe rests with the governor and his administration. He will probably give a simple thumbs up or thumbs down to stringent emissions controls for the coal plants, thereby resolving the matter or leaving it for his successor to address. In the meantime, we have a right to demand that our leaders come up with creative solutions for cleaning up the air we breathe, so our friends and loved ones no longer bear the physical and financial burdens of coal's deadly toxins.
Joe Garonzik is a Baltimore native and activist who espouses civic engagement as the solution for most societal problems. His email is email@example.com.To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.