New coal plant pollution controls eyed

Companies worry about economic impact of new state regulation; advocates say action needed to protect people sensitive to smog

  • Charles P. Crane Generating Station in MIddle River. Maryland is moving to crack down on smog-forming pollution from the state's smaller coal burning power plants.
Charles P. Crane Generating Station in MIddle River. Maryland… (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun )
September 13, 2014|Timothy B. Wheeler | The Baltimore Sun

Looking to protect Marylanders from unsafe levels of smog, environmental regulators are moving to clamp down on pollution from the state's smaller coal-burning power plants, but plant owners warn that the rule could have economic consequences.

The Maryland Department of the Environment recently unveiled a draft rule two years in the planning that would require coal-burning plants in the Baltimore and Washington areas to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides by 48 percent over the next four years. Until now, the smaller plants have eluded tighter controls.

Byproducts of burning coal, nitrogen oxides help form ground-level ozone, an invisible gas commonly called smog. When inhaled at high enough levels, ozone can cause burning eyes and throats, coughing and wheezing, asthma attacks and even premature deaths.

Owners of the coal plants have asked for more time to study the new air-quality rule. Pollution-control upgrades costing up to $200 million per plant could drive up electricity rates, they say. And if forced to do too much too fast, they say, plants might simply shut down, costing hundreds of jobs and risking power blackouts.

"We're concerned about how aggressively those numbers are ratcheted down. We want to make sure it's doable," said Michael C. Powell, a lawyer representing Raven Power. The company bought three Baltimore area coal-fired plants two years ago from Constellation — C.P. Crane in Middle River and Brandon Shores and H.A. Wagner in Pasadena.

But environmentalists say it is past time for all of Maryland's coal plants to curb their pollution.

"For too long, Marylanders have suffered the worst air quality on the East Coast," said Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club. "This debate has gone on for one year already and we cannot afford further delay."

The controversy comes as Maryland nears the end of one of its least-smoggy summers, with the lowest ozone levels recorded in the past 30 years. Officials say they believe the air in Edgewood, which for years routinely registered the highest ozone readings on the Eastern seaboard, might have met the federal health threshold for the first time this summer.

Since Memorial Day, the Baltimore area has experienced four "Code Orange" days, when ozone concentrations in the air reached levels that the Environmental Protection Agency considers unhealthy for children and adults with respiratory and heart ailments.

Over the past five years, the state typically has had about 20 such days a year, with a few days when smog reached levels deemed unhealthy for anyone to breathe, not just those with respiratory problems.

Officials credit previous rounds of mandated pollution controls for improving Maryland's summertime air quality over the past 20 years. But smog is influenced by weather, with ozone levels highest on hot, windless days. This summer has seen abnormally mild temperatures, with the fourth-fewest number of days ever above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Regulators say the weather is unlikely to be as helpful in future summers, leaving Maryland out of compliance with the national ozone pollution standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We are making great progress — the air is cleaner," said Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "But we still have more work to do."

Most of the pollution that turns into smog in Maryland comes from outside the state, drifting downwind from coal-burning power plants as far away as the Ohio River Valley. Maryland required its largest coal plants to install $2.6 billion worth of emission controls under the 2004 Healthy Air Act.

The new limits mostly would affect four coal plants — Crane and Wagner in the Baltimore area, plus Chalk Point in Prince George's County and Dickerson in Montgomery County. They would have to either upgrade to the best possible nitrogen oxide controls, switch to cleaner-burning gas or shut down — though the draft rule says plant owners could try something else if it would reduce pollution enough.

The smaller coal-fired power plants run only when electricity demand spikes, and have been allowed until now to operate with less-effective pollution controls. But state officials say air-quality rules imposed to date haven't curbed smog effectively, and in recent years some coal plants have increased their nitrogen oxide emissions during summer.

Representatives of Raven and NRG, which owns the Chalk Point and Dickerson facilities, have told state officials that upgrading pollution controls would cost $40 million to $200 million per plant, with increased operating costs of $5 million to $28 million annually, depending on its size and usage.

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