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Maryland breaks with Trump administration, pushes tougher water pollution rules

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R). (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Maryland will start requiring three coal-fired power plants to scrub toxic metals such as mercury and arsenic from water discharged into the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, the latest example of Gov. Larry Hogan (R) putting distance between his state and Trump administration policies.

Permits issued late last month for the three of the state’s seven coal-fired plants say that, starting in 2020, those plants will have to adhere to Obama-era environmental rules, not the laxer requirements endorsed by the current occupant of the White House.

The Maryland Department of the Environment initially proposed indefinitely delaying the stricter water pollution rules, which were approved in 2015 and scheduled to take effect this year. Four months after President Trump took office, then-head of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt suspended them. But Maryland Democrats and environmental groups pressured Hogan to enforce them anyway.

The permits, issued under the Clean Water Act, require three generating stations — Dickerson in Montgomery County, Chalk Point in Prince George’s County and Morgantown in Charles County — to remove selenium, lead and other pollutants. The plants are owned by GenOn, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“The Trump administration has been trying to weaken and delay this rule, and the Hogan administration basically said no,” said Able Russ, a senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, which lobbied for the change and hailed the permits last week. “Politically, you have a Republican governor who is running for reelection in a state [that] cares a lot about the Chesapeake Bay who is willing to buck a Trump, Republican White House who doesn’t.”

Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) organized nearly 50 lawmakers last fall to ask the Hogan administration to stick with the tougher rules and the original 2018 timeline for implementing them. Moon called requiring the tougher rules but waiting for two years for them to take effect the administration’s “way of splitting the baby.”

“We were hoping they would move with haste,” said Moon, who is backing Democrat Ben Jealous for governor in November.

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles played down the idea that his agency had shifted policy, saying in a statement that it’s normal for environmental regulators to draft a policy and then incorporate public feedback before issuing a final permit.

The state sued the power plant operators in 2016, alleging water pollution violations, and settled for a $1 million fine and $1 million in promised pollution upgrades.

Political scientist Mileah Kromer said the new permits again illustrate Hogan’s willingness to break openly with Trump.

“Moderation is his only path to victory,” Kromer said. “I think he’s trying to consistently demonstrate he’s independent. . . . To sell that message to Democratic voters, I think he does have to have specific instances that he can point to where he has distanced himself and pushed back against the president.”