Hogan: Publish Smog Rules So Baltimore Can Breathe Easier, Please

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Hopefully by this summer, Baltimore's kids will breathe easier because local coal-fired electricity plants will run smog pollution controls on hot, smoggy summer days.
Hopefully this summer, Baltimore’s kids will breathe easier because local coal-fired electricity plants will run smog pollution controls on hot, smoggy summer days.

Richard, a Baltimore Fishbowl reader, commented on my recent article about fixing Baltimore’s crappy air pollution. His basic point was that I offered some good info, but I had missed the third air pollution fix being considered in Maryland’s General Assembly, the Healthy Air for All Act. This bill is based on the almost-on-the-books air pollution regulations that Larry Hogan nixed on his first day as Governor.

Richard was spot-on. Few of us know about the Maryland Department of the Environment’s (MDE) Nitrogen Oxide Reasonable Allowance Control Technology regulation (no kidding, that’s the name.) And we should. More Baltimore residents die from air pollution than from gun violence each year. But that point doesn’t make the nightly news.

Maryland’s General Assembly may vote on House Bill 1042, the Healthy Air for All Act, if the bill makes it out of committee. Or, Governor Hogan could ask a state employee to press send and email the ready-to-go air pollution regulations to the Maryland Register and they would become law.

Smog ain’t sexy…

And, frankly, the topic is complicated and confusing. But, we breathe some of the worst air on the East Coast, so here’s the ‘skimmer’ version on why the Healthy Air for All Act is important.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets air pollution limits for six pollutants spewed out by electricity power plants. 

States choose how to meet their pollution targets and Maryland’s 2004 Healthy Air Act has helped make a dent in most pollutant levels.  But the law had an unintended consequence regarding some pollutants. Especially nitrogen oxide (NOx), which with help from the hot sun, forms unhealthy ground-level ozone, or smog.

Smaller power plants, like the four coal-fired plants surrounding the Baltimore and Washington metros, got a pass on installing pollution control systems because “numbers” were averaged over the state’s plants. Relatively lower pollution numbers from Maryland’s newer and updated coal-fired plants offset Baltimore’s dinosaur plants built between 1956 and 1964.  So much so that MDE reported that on many summer “Code orange and red” smog days, Baltimore’s power plants didn’t run any pollution controls because they were not required to run the controls. 

Though parts of Maryland comply with Clean Air Act pollution standards, Baltimore’s EPA smog grade is an “F” which has forced Maryland to create to a “state implementation plan” to lower smog-forming NOx levels. Basically, the options are to fix the mess, or lose some federal highway dollars. 

Regulation Rigmarole

For the past two years, MDE, coal-plant owners, public health experts, the Sierra Club and others negotiated NOx reducing pollution rules to  help Baltimore meet the state implementation plan.  It wasn’t an easy task, but the group, except for one party, agreed that the four Baltimore-Washington-area coal-fired electricity plants would run existing pollution controls during the hot summer months. If none existed, they agreed to install modern controls by 2020.

The “MDE NOx RACT” regulation was approved, signed by all and was on its way to the Maryland Register – the state’s official book of rules – when Hogan halted the regulation pending “further review.”

Now it gets interesting. The one party not on board is NRG, the owner of two Washington-metro plants. NRG is a Fortune 500 corporation that in 2014 netted $3.1 billion in operating cash flow and is so confident in its future financial strength that it recently raised its dividend and authorized a stock buyback. NRG has publicly stated that installing pollution controls on these power plants, which can run into the millions, or converting the plants to natural gas fuel, is too expensive. Though NRG has upgraded many of their plants, they maintain that Maryland’s new regulations would force NRG to close the plants costing 500 jobs. That claim must have rung Hogan’s bell as he campaigned on a pro-business platform.

Baltimore County’s Delegate Dana Stein and Senator Shirley Nathan-Pulliam quickly sponsored the “Healthy Air for All Act” work-around bill. If approved, the bill requires Maryland to meet the same NOx rules that were delayed by Hogan. Stein adds, “Hopefully this bill passes and Maryland can breathe easier. Smog’s health implications are alarming, but the good news is there’s research out of Los Angeles proving that lower levels of air pollution mean better health outcomes for kids.”

How unhealthy is Baltimore’s smog?

Regardless of your Charm City zip code, we’re all breathing toxic air. Baltimore’s smog is so bad that we have the highest air pollution mortality rate in the country. The same MIT research also found that air pollution shortened its victim’s lifespan an average of ten years.

And, 20 percent of Baltimore’s children have asthma. That’s twice the national average!  Air pollution is a major cause of asthma attacks. That explains why Baltimore’s City Council sent a clear message this week to Annapolis supporting the Healthy Air for All Act by unanimously passing this resolution requesting the state approve the bill. 

The negative health consequences go far beyond lung issues. Add increased strokes and heart disease to air pollution’s costs and scary, new peer-reviewed Harvard research strongly links autism to air pollution. Really?

“I get really scared. What if I don’t get help fast enough.”

On a personal note, my youngest now has an inhaler for asthma symptoms. We’ve never had asthma in our family. His buddy Elias taught me first-hand what happens during an asthma attack when he slept over at our home. Here’s how 11-year old Elias describes an asthma attack: “My chest will hurt really badly, then I can’t breathe in and I get light-headed. I cough a lot and wheeze in air. It takes a bit for the inhaler to work, and while I wait, I get scared because I wonder what will happen if I don’t get help.” (The photo at the top is the two buddies playing at the pool.)

Baltimore deserves the Clean Air Act, too

Baltimore and DC citizens should benefit from the Clean Air Act just as the rest of the country benefits. This federal regulation has markedly cleaned up our country’s air, we just happen to live a pollution hot-spot.  Three fixes are in play to help our hot-spot: The Healthy Air for All Act HB 1042 zeroes in on local dinosaur power plants. The EPA is considering lowering nation-wide ozone legal limits, which will reduce the Ohio Valley downwind pollution we breathe. And, if passed, Maryland’s Clean Energy Advancement Act (SB 373 / HB 377) would require energy suppliers to purchase at least 25 percent from zero-emission, renewable sources.

To me, the three fixes have a chance because it seems like public and political opinion is shifting and no longer buying into the age-old argument that business economics always trumps our environment and our health. Maybe by this summer, the “Healthy Air for All” regulations will be in place and we’ll all breathe less crappy air.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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9 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article covering this issue and the critical need to pass the Healthy Air Act for All. For the love of God, how can we pour all this toxic crap into the air hundreds of thousands of kids are breathing in this city? Kids look to us to protect them and it is our moral obligation to do so. Clean air (and water and soil) is a human right. We need to clean up our act and fast!

  2. Thank you for clearly communicating a VERY complex topic!

    I really do hope to see some positive results on this issue soon from the legislature….or even better Governor Hogan himself.

  3. Thank you for this! It’s surprising how few people realize just how bad Maryland’s air really is, or that we have been in violation of the Clean Air Act ozone standards for years! I hope everyone will encourage their legislators to support HB1042/SB892, and also write Gov. Hogan to urge him to simply release the hold on MDE’s regulation and clean up Maryland’s air THIS SUMMER!

  4. Great article on a big problem! Also worth noting that the current reality is corporate welfare for coal plants – they shift the pollution costs of their business on the public and health insurance programs.

  5. Thank you for so clearly communicating a very complicated topic. I am ready to be done with this “regulation rigmarole”, and I know folks with asthma across Baltimore feel the same way. Let’s clean up our air!

  6. Thanks for this commentary! I was at two of the MDE meetings on the subject. The opposition had its say and a reasonable compromise was adopted. If the governor won’t approve it, the General Assembly should do so.

  7. Once again Laurel, thanks for keeping us informed on such important Enviromental issues. Great article!

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