Two Fixes Aimed at Reducing Baltimore’s Crappy Air Pollution

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Satellite image reveals air pollution over Mid-Atlantic region. Ohio Valley power plant emissions float to Baltimore. ©UCAR. Image by Alison Rockwell, NCAR, based on NASA satellite map.

Charm City’s air quality is so bad that we top the list for highest mortality rate from air pollution.  But, this isn’t just a bummer-our-air-quality-is-lousy-post. Have you heard of two proposed government initiatives (yes-that’s code for regulations) that may actually improve our city’s air quality? New EPA smog limits and the Maryland Clean Energy Advancement Act sound kind of wonky, but these “big deal” policies can cut air pollution and hopefully better protect Baltimore’s citizens.

Why is Baltimore’s air so dirty?

First, there are a lot of trucks and cars sputtering exhaust in Baltimore. Second, we are the unlucky recipients of pollution from the Ohio Valley’s coal-fired power plants. More than 100, mostly ancient coal-fired power plants spew high levels of pollution which floats right over to our region.

The chart above illustrates the connection between Ohio Valley power plants and our region’s air quality.  Add two homegrown coal-fired power plants to the mix, and it makes sense why Baltimore’s asthma rate is 20 percent, more than double the national average. 

Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets air pollution limits for most industrial activities (ironically, oil and gas is exempted.) One of the six regulated air pollutants is ground-level ozone, a.k.a. smog, which is an unhealthy chemical mix of nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds. Smog gets even worse when cooked by the hot sun.

To help Americans track their region’s air quality, the EPA rates daily air quality with the Air Quality Index (AQI). Scores of 0-50 are good. 50-100 is moderate, meaning people sensitive to air pollution need to be careful. Scores over 100 start ringing those orange and red code alerts.

Recent AQI stats shown below clearly illustrate the ongoing problem; the Mid-Atlantic’s air quality is poor when compared to the rest of U.S. Even in the winter. Baltimore’s AQI hovered near 85 yesterday. New York City was 96 and Riverside, CA, known for horrendous smog, was 55. 

Todays AQI
Calculated in real time, reports the Air Quality Index nationwide.

Asthma, premature deaths, and autism?

Air pollution’s health impacts are pretty serious. Baltimore has the highest air pollution mortality rate in the country. The same MIT report concluded that air pollution shortens its victims lives by ten years. Ozone causes many lung issues from asthma to respiratory infections. But, new and unsettling Harvard research strongly suggests a link between autism and air pollution. The study’s conclusion states, …the possibility of an effect of maternal exposure to air pollution during pregnancy, and especially during the third trimester, on the development of Autism Spectrum Disorder in her child.”

How can we make Baltimore’s air quality better?

Clean Air Idea #1: EPA proposes to lower ozone limits

The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee recommended to the EPA that the allowable amount of ozone pollution that can be emitted by industry be reduced from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 65 to 70 ppb. The EPA is accepting comments until March 17, 2015 to go as low as 60 ppb. The EPA’s goal is: “…to fulfill the law’s [Clean Air Act] promise, and defend each and every person’s right to clean air.”

This federal regulation would force power plants and industries to take measures to reduce ozone-producing pollution. Opposition by energy and manufacturing firms is fierce. The EPA estimates the cost to hit 70 ppm at $4 billion, and $15 billion to hit 65 ppm. Industry’s estimate is $270 billion to clean up their pollution. If you want to have your voice heard, check out the Mom’s Clean Air Force’s effort to support the lowest ozone goal of 60 ppm. Trisha Sheehan, the Mom’s Clean Air Force Northeast Regional Field Manager weighs in, “In order to truly protect children’s lungs, the national standard for smog should be set at 60 ppb.

Clean Air Idea #2: Maryland’s Clean Energy Advancement Act (SB 373 / HB 377)

Introduced in the 2015 Maryland General Assembly, this state-level bill would require Maryland’s utilities and power suppliers to source 25 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020. That’s up from the planned 20 percent by 2022. Only 10 percent of our state’s energy is sourced from renewable energy today. 

This bill has strong backing by health, religious and environmental organizations because it gins up investment and support for cleaner renewables. Tommy Landers, Maryland and DC’s Policy Director at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network summed up the bill: Our computers, lights, phones, gadgets — almost everything we use today relies on electricity. And that electricity has to come from somewhere. Unfortunately, we still get most of our electricity from burning coal and gas, which releases pollution that’s killing us, hurting the Chesapeake Bay, and threatening our very survival on this planet in the long run. So, it’s critical that we use more solar and wind power as fast as we can. The Clean Energy Advancement Act will help us do just that.”  If interested, click here to connect with your state elected officials in support of this bill.

Laurel Peltier
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  1. Our reliance of burning dirty fossil fuels for electricity is the reason over 85% of Marylanders live in areas that fail to meet EPA’s clean air standards- that’s outrageous. It’s time to switch to clean, renewable energy.

  2. The poor quality of Baltimore’s air is a huge environmental injustice that disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color. Pollution is so bad, the city paper reported that more people in Baltimore die from air pollution than from gun violence. From pollution! That’s criminal. We should push for stronger renewable energy requirements for Maryland while phasing out polluting dirty energy throughout the state.

  3. Baltimore has the highest air pollution mortality rate in the country! We cannot continue this abuse to our environment and health. Low-income residents and people of color are suffering disproportionately from the burning of fossil fuels. Let’s move forward with both Clean Air Ideas! Connect with your state officials to encourage them to pass the Clean Energy Advancement Act for a cleaner, healthier Maryland!

  4. There is a lot of good information in this piece, but the author left out a critical step. Actually that step was about the be taken when newly inaugurated Governor Hogan stuck out his leg to trip it up.
    The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) was about to publish strict rules that would limit the amount of nitrogen oxide pollution from coal-fired power plants, Within 4 hours of assuming office, Governor Hogan yelled Stop the Presses. These regulations are essential because nitrogen oxides react with sunlight to produce low-level ozone (smog) which in turn causes and exacerbates asthma and other lung disease.

    Fortunately, HB 1042 now being considered in the Maryland House of Delegates could bring those rules into effect. The result would begin to be felt very soon as coal-fired generators ran their pollution control equipment every day during summers and these same plants would have to install the best pollution control technology by 2020.

    I urge readers to contact their legislators to urge passage of this bill.

    Of course, Governor Hogan could do the right thing and let these regulations go into effect right now. It wouldn’t hurt to call him and tell him so.

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