Does the Governor Have a Plan B For Code Red?

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. recently reduced his state's strategy for cleaning the air to the policy equivalent of absolute zero, the temperature at which movement stops, even at the atomic level.

The final bump down came May 31 when Ehrlich refused state Attorney General Joseph Curran's request to join a multistate challenge to Bush administration regulations that exempt coal-fired power plants from tough controls on mercury pollution. Neither Curran nor his predecessor, Steve Sachs -- who combined have more than 25 years experience as attorneys general -- remember a governor ever rejecting such a request.

During the past General Assembly session, the Ehrlich administration opposed legislation that would have clamped down on mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from Maryland's coal-fired power plants. According to an independent analysis, these plants account for 600 premature deaths and 12,000 asthma attacks annually. They are among the dirtiest coal-fired plants in the nation. Pollution from many of these facilities actually increased between 1995 and 2003, the last year for which numbers are available.

Instead of pushing for state legislation, Maryland's Department of the Environment advocated "a national program with emission caps more stringent than current federal proposals," a spokesman for the department said, adding that Maryland needs to focus on regional and national solutions rather than adopting a Maryland-only program that addresses just the minor, local part of our pollution problem.

The same reasoning figured in the administration's opposition to legislation introduced in the past session to clean up automobile tailpipe emissions. Vehicle exhaust is a huge source of air pollutants. Had that legislation and the power plant measure both passed, they would have reduced sources of air pollution within Maryland substantially. But the Ehrlich administration's message was clear: Maryland's air problems aren't caused by home-grown pollution; they are caused by pollutants the wind carries in from other states.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Before the 2005 legislative session, the University of Maryland's Environmental Law Clinic evaluated the state's progress in meeting federal Clean Air Act goals. Officials at the Department of the Environment claimed that sources outside Maryland account for 69 percent or more of Maryland's air quality problems, but the clinic reported that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could not verify that statistic or the models used to derive it and that it expressed skepticism about the figure. The EPA also said that Maryland was doing less than neighboring states, including Virginia, to control pollution from power plants.

But put aside the EPA's skepticism and the notion that maybe Maryland should address both in-state and out-of-state pollution sources, and one still is left with an astonishing sequence of events: This winter the Ehrlich administration opposed remedies aimed at in-state sources of air pollution on the grounds that interstate controls were needed. Now, it opposes aggressive efforts to toughen interstate controls.

On top of that, enforcement of air quality laws already on the books is inadequate. Maryland has only 18 inspectors to verify compliance at more than 11,000 facilities. Air quality monitoring sites for tracking ozone levels inside Baltimore City haven't worked since 2002.

With another summer of Code Red days looming, Marylanders have a right to ask the governor how he proposes to clean the air.

-- Brian Frosh


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