A snap shot of Maryland's poor airquality days compared to average summer air temperatures. Credit: Clean Air Partners and weather.gov
Baltimore-area’s poor air quality days compared to average summer air temperatures. AQI days courtesy cleanairpartners.net. Air temps courtesy weather.gov.

Summer 2016 was smokin’ hot and that didn’t bode well for Baltimore’s air quality. Summer’s hot sun bakes air pollution’s chemicals into unhealthy smog which is harmful for sensitive populations. Surprisingly, this “at risk” population is huge; 25 percent of Baltimore County and City residents suffer from asthma, COPD, heart disease or diabetes. 

Though Maryland’s Department the Environment released a wow-our-air-quality-is-great report this spring, as illustrated above, Baltimore experienced 24 summer days where our air quality didn’t meet federal Clean Air Act standards.

Baltimore metro’s air quality is a tale of temper tantrums, regulation rigamarole, and loads of unnecessary and expensive emergency room visits. Who knew that air quality is actually pretty interesting? 

I can’t blame anyone for not being “woohoo” about air quality. We barely hear or read much about the topic in mainstream media. It’s not sexy.  It’s actually wonky, and air quality isn’t “news.” For me, it wasn’t until 2014, when I read one little line in an email that really pissed me off (more on that later), that I even learned that Baltimore is known for sucky air quality. American Lung Association gives Baltimore an “F” grade for air quality. Why? 

Maryland’s Air Quality History in 268 Words

Maryland struggles with poor air quality for two reasons: coal-fired power plants and vehicle exhaust. The good news is that vehicle emissions are slowly getting cleaner.

Four, older coal-fired electricity plants circle our metro. The pollution controls on these plants vary. Some plants, like the Crane plant in east Baltimore built in 1956, have few controls. When that bad boy is turned on in the summer, loads of nitrogen dioxide (smog chemical) and sulfur dioxide spew out.

The same issue faces the Ohio Valley power plants that happen to sit upwind from the Baltimore area.

By 2006, Maryland consistently violated federal Clean Air Act pollution standards which are regulated under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA mandated Maryland clean up our air. Focusing on coal-fired power plants, the 2007 Healthy Air Act was legislated. The law forced local power plant owners to spends big bucks to upgrade their smokestacks with better air cleaning technology to cut mercury, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide.

And, the Healthy Air Act worked well for mercury and fine particulates. 

But, as of 2012, ground-level ozone was not meeting EPA limits.

MDE reports in the 2016 Clean Air Progress report better ozone figures. 2013 MDE piloted running all pollution controls, 2014 was unseasonable cool.
MDE’s 2016 Clean Air Progress reports improving ozone levels. In 2013, MDE piloted running all pollution controls. 2014 was unseasonably cool.

Ozone can be confusing. Ozone is good up high in the sky to keep our planet habitable, but it’s horrible for those “sensitive populations” to breathe. Think of ground-level ozone as a lung sunburn. Ozone can trigger asthma attacks. High levels of ozone can reduce human lung function by 20 percent which just zaps the 25 percent of folks with lung, heart and diabetes issues. Ozone is a serious human health issue explaining why the EPA keeps lowering approved ozone levels as scientific research keeps piling up on how unhealthy it is to breathe in ground-level ozone.

Now the story gets intriguing

A subtle point that I read in a Sierra Club email infuriated me. I have three kids, and we know several people with asthma.

In this 2014 email, the Sierra Club was celebrating Maryland’s newly passed MDE “smog” regulations (or, nitrogen dioxide NOx regs) that would require coal-fired electricity plants to either: install NOx air cleaners, close the plant, or switch the plant’s fuel from coal to cleaner burning natural gas. Sounds good, right?

But there was also a little blurb in the email explaining how the new rules would also require our Baltimore coal-fired power plants to turn on any air cleaners already installed. 

What? Baltimore’s older power plants weren’t using “available pollution control technology” on hot summer days? That sucks.

As it turns out before 2013 power plants were not running pollution controls. The Healthy Air Act allowed pollution statewide-averaging that legally allowed Baltimore and DC’s older power plants to avoid upgrading air cleaners because pollution numbers are averaged over the state’s coal-fired power plants. Lower pollution numbers from newer and more efficient Maryland coal-fired plants offset Baltimore’s older and dirtier power plant pollution. 

MDE reported that prior to 2013, even on the many “Code orange and red” summer days, Baltimore’s power plants didn’t run any pollution controls because they were not legally required to under the Healthy Air Act.

In 2013, MDE piloted a program proving that ozone numbers dropped when the old controls were used in all power plants.  Please-use-your-air-cleaners was also made law. Whew. We’re all good.   

Hogan Pulls New Smog Rules on Day 1

Everyone involved in developing the new smog rules (green groups, MDE, Governor O’Malley, health professionals, even power plant operators) were on board with the new 2015 MDE smog rules.

Except NRG, the nation’s largest power plant operator.  NRG owns two power plants near DC. NRG must have met with Larry Hogan on the campaign trail because on day 1 in office, Hogan stopped the approved smog rules from being printed. No kidding.

NRG publicly stated that they weren’t cool with adding new smog-reducing-NOx technology because it was too expensive, may force the company to close the plants, and layoff 500 people.

Hogan eventually crafted emergency rules in late 2015.  Phase 1 kept the please-use-your-air-cleaners rule. Phase 2 added in a fourth option that allows for that pesky system-wide averaging to be used again.

This mom in Baltimore City, along with many clean air stakeholders, was stunned by Hogan’s actions. If these old Baltimore and DC coal-fired plants don’t upgrade, all that nitrogen oxide will keep flowing out of those old smokestacks, baking in the hot summer sun and continue to transform into ground-level ozone. That isn’t healthy.

Luck of the Weather

Hogan had one outside force in his favor. The summer of 2014 was unseasonably cool. Lower temperatures meant fewer ozone days. Baltimore had only four Code orange air quality days.  2015’s summer was also cooler, with only seven poor air quality days.

So far so good for the emergency smog rules.

But this mom just waited to see what would happen when summer was back to its scorching self.

The summer of 2016 hit record highs. The hottest August ever recorded.

Twenty-four poor air quality days in 2016. Three days were off-the-charts, especially in Baltimore County.

Baltimore's daily AQI (Air Quality Index) results for ground-level ozone by day. Orang and Red boxes are days air quality exceeded federal limits. Credit: Cleanairpartners.org
Baltimore’s daily ground-level ozone AQI scores for summer 2016. Orange and Red boxes are days that air quality exceeded federal limits. Credit: cleanairpartners.net

It was expected that Maryland would not meet all ozone numbers because the EPA lowered ground-level ozone from 0.75 parts per billion to 0.70 in 2016.

Yet, Baltimore still had 11 Code orange and red days above the old 0.75 ppb limit.

In 2016, Baltimore’s air quality is better when compared to pre-Healthy Air Act years. But it seems a stretch, to me at least, to claim that our state’s air quality is “very close to meeting all federal air quality standards” as  claimed in MDE’s 2016 Clean Air Progress report.

Baltimore is Back to Air Quality Square One

Baltimore and DC’s coal-fired power plants still don’t have new nitrogen oxide pollution controls. Thankfully, our local coal-fired power plants are now required to run and optimize any pollution controls the plants do have installed.   

Maryland Department of the Environment’s Jay Apperson and Carolyn Jones shared that ozone “design” figures look good in 2016, “Preliminary ozone figures which have not been fully vetted look to be 0.73 ppb.” That figure appears to be a three-year “design” ozone average which includes 2014’s low ozone figure. 

The EPA’s 2016 prelim ozone level for Baltimore in 2016 alone is 0.88 ppb, exceeding the EPA 0.75 or 0.70 ozone limit. That’s what Charm City gets to breathe.

According to the EPA, Baltimore metro's 8-hour ozone level was 88 parts per billion. https://www.epa.gov/outdoor-air-quality-data
According to the EPA, Baltimore metro’s 8-hour ozone level was 88 parts per billion. The current limit is 70 ppb. https://www.epa.gov/outdoor-air-quality-data

The sticking point seems to be deciding what is the pollution source causing Baltimore’s poor air quality: local power plants (environmental and physician groups) or upwind-out-of-state plants (Hogan administration)?

Here’s how MDE explains where we are: “Local emission reductions from the Healthy Air Act will provide more than 90% of the reductions needed in Maryland to comply with the 2010 ozone and fine particle standards. Maryland is working with the Ozone Transport Commission on a suite of emission control measures to achieve the remaining 10 percent.” That sounds like Baltimore and DC’s power plants will continue to run with no future smog controls. Will that work for the EPA?

The Sierra Club’s David Smedick offers another point-of-view, “Maryland has made great progress under the Healthy Air Act, but we still have serious work to do to reduce dangerous ozone and sulfur dioxide pollution and protect the 75 percent of Maryland families that still live in Counties that have received a D or F grade for air quality from the American Lung Association.” said Smedick.

Our state needs aggressive and tangible action on pollution reduction, especially from our state and regional electric grid. We can achieve better air quality by moving beyond fossil fuels and transitioning to clean energy. Programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, EmPOWER Maryland, and the Renewable Portfolio Standard must be strengthened and supported in order to achieve more progress on these issues.”

Will any of this work for us? We’ll keep you posted.

Laurel Peltier reports on environmental stories and news in the weekly GreenLaurel column. A graduate of UCLA and UVA’s Darden MBA program, Laurel was a brand manager for consumer companies. 

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Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.