Doris Toles, watches as decisions are made on the quality of her air. Toles has been hospitalized when poor air quality in Baltimore left her struggling to breathe. She was attending the Air Quality Control Advisory Council meeting at the Maryland Department of the Environment in Baltimore, MD. The council approved new regulations which will require coal burning power plants to use their existing pollution controls daily and meet new emission standards.
There is good news in the air for those who breathe in Maryland: The Air Quality Control Advisory Council approved new regulations which mandate that all coal burning power plants must use their existing pollution controls.
WHAT?!!!! We needed regulations to get the owners of coal burning power plants to use their existing pollution controls?
That’s right. Outside of what the Maryland Department of the Environment are calling the “Summer Study,” quite a few coal burning plants had been switching off their pollution controls until they started bumping into mandated emission limits. A report by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) found that if the Brandon Shores and Wagner power plants had used their pollution controls continuously in 2012, they could have prevented 2,035 tons of NOx (nitrous oxide) emissions.
Until the “Summer Study,” some plants had simply not used their SNRC controls for years; others were using them less than half the time.
These new requirements to use their existing pollution controls, combined with daily and monthly emission levels are good news for Marylander’s who enjoy breathing.
It is interesting to be in a room where people are deciding how clean (or dirty) our air will be.
To people who breathe, this can seem to be a simple question with an equally simple answer: CLEAN.
But inside the conference room at MDE, the discussion is complex and strategic.
Remember that bit about the coal burning power plants not using their pollution controls?
The same stuff is going on in other states like Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania –and their air comes here, sometimes making up a majority of the ozone (smog) we experience in the summer.
How do we get them to stop sending us polluted air if we keep polluting our own?
An executive from a power producing company warns of power blackouts if they have to close their polluting plants. Pointing out that the demand doesn’t go away just because we quit producing electricity; he suggests that plants in other states would simply step in to provide the power and pollution that we lost.
An executive from another power company supports the regulations, perhaps eager to inherit market share from other power companies who might have to close under these rules.
A member of the council worries that natural gas might actually cause more harm to the environment than the coal that these regulations are attempting to replace.
Another member wonders if the state will be sued by a power company to delay or nullify the regulations.
Underlying each of these complex conversations is our addiction to cheap, dirty energy.
Look across our skylines– the smokestacks from coal burning power plants look cigarettes that our cities are chain smoking day after day, hour after hour. But inside the room, the talk wasn’t focused on renewable energy or gains in energy efficiency. It’s about rising power demands and perhaps a transition to natural gas, another fossil fuel– a different brand of smoke.
Responding to questions about the dangers of NOx pollution, a power company executive talks about balance, cost and reliability: weighing of the benefit of the electricity against the harm of the emissions. But he doesn’t talk about the costs of air pollution which are borne by the public. Their deaths, asthma and hospitalizations are not found on the balance sheets of his plants.
A recent two part study by Harvard, Syracuse and Boston Universities estimated that lowering pollutants from power plants in a scenario similar to the proposed EPA plan would prevent 3,500 early deaths and a thousand hospitalizations every year in the United States by 2020. Their report found that Maryland would see some of the greatest health benefits of this plan.
How many early deaths, hospitalizations or heart attacks will these new NOx regulations prevent in Maryland?
How many more will the two year extension for closing or refitting power plants create?
These are hard numbers to come by, but stay tuned as we talk to health and energy experts over the next few months.
And say a prayer with me for Doris, the kind woman with COPD, that her life will stay in the saved column.