A dock in Dundalk in Baltimore County.

Three environmental groups on Wednesday sued the Environmental Protection Agency, alleging that the federal agency violated the Clean Air Act by failing to ensure parts of Maryland and Michigan have effective plans for cleaning up sulfur dioxide air pollution.

Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties in Maryland, as well as part of the Detroit metropolitan area in Michigan, are at the heart of the lawsuit, which was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Environmental Health.

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to limit the amount of sulfur oxide gases, including sulfur dioxide, in outdoor air. Areas where sulfur oxide levels exceed those standards are required to clean up their air.

In 2010, the EPA established an air quality standard specifically for sulfur dioxide levels. The agency found that Anne Arundel County and Baltimore County in Maryland, alongside Michigan’s Wayne County, which encompasses Detroit, had sulfur dioxide levels above the air quality standard.

Maryland and Michigan were required to submit state implementation plans for bringing sulfur dioxide levels in line with air quality standards.

Robert Ukeiley, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, acknowledged in an email to Baltimore Fishbowl that Maryland failed to submit a plan by the March 12, 2018 deadline. But Ukeiley added that Maryland did submit an implementation plan in February 2020, and the EPA found that submitted plan to be administratively complete the following month.

The EPA had a “mandatory duty” to approve or disapprove of the 2020 submittal by March 18, 2021, but the agency has not done so, Ukeiley said.

Now, the plaintiffs are suing the EPA in an effort to get the agency to take action.

“Because this is pending litigation, EPA has no additional information to share,” an EPA spokesperson told Baltimore Fishbowl.

The EPA determined in 2016 that the area near the Wagner and Brandon Shores power plants in Anne Arundel County had sulfur dioxide levels higher than the 2010 standard, although the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) found the area was in attainment with the standard, MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson said. Apperson added that the EPA reached its determination based on older data.

Following the EPA’s determination, MDE submitted its state implementation plan to the EPA in January 2020.

Apperson said MDE also placed a sulfur dioxide monitor in the Riviera Beach area of Anne Arundel County, where “models predicted would have a relatively high concentration of [sulfur dioxide] compared to other spots in the area.”

Readings from that monitor have never exceeded the 1-hour sulfur dioxide standard, he added.

“While the process of getting the SIP approved and the actual designation changed are still in process, [sulfur dioxide] levels in the area meet the standard and are protective of public health,” Apperson said.

Nearly 1.3 million people live and work in the affected parts of Maryland and Michigan, according to the lawsuit.

Ukeiley criticized the EPA for being slow to act.

“The EPA’s illegal delay in cleaning up this dangerous air pollution not only endangers the health of thousands of people but directly encourages the ongoing use of dirty coal and oil,” Ukeiley said in a press statement. “Foot-dragging on requiring coal-burning power plants to clean up their act isn’t going to get us the rapid transition to the renewable energy economy that President Biden’s pledging.”

Sulfur dioxide is primarily produced from burning fossil fuels, like coal and oil.

Those exposed to sulfur oxide gases even relatively briefly can experience “significant health impacts,” such as heart and lung diseases, the lawsuit says.

Individuals who have COVID-19 and similar diseases can have even worse health outcomes when exposed to air pollution, the plaintiffs added in a press statement.

They said sulfur dioxide can also harm the environment by contributing to acid rain and haze; damaging lakes, streams and ecosystems; decreasing visibility in national parks; harming vegetation and wildlife; and reducing biodiversity, which all can cause further harm to communities’ health.

“The research is clear, sulfur dioxide pollution leads to significant adverse health effects,” Kaya Sugerman, director of the Center for Environmental Health’s illegal toxic threats program, said in a statement. “The EPA is legally obligated to ensure that more people aren’t needlessly impacted by exposure to unsafe levels of this dangerous pollutant.”

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at marcus@baltimorefishbowl.com...