ANNAPOLIS – Clear Skies, a new federal air pollution initiative, would mean $3 billion in health and other benefits for Maryland, Environmental Protection Administrator Christie Whitman told Maryland officials Tuesday.
Although it hasn’t received as much attention as wastewater treatment in recent weeks, Maryland’s air quality is still an important issue, said Gov. Robert Ehrlich in introducing Whitman at a State House news conference.
The initiative, announced last year by President Bush, aims to curb emission of three pollutants – sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury – and would bring billions a year in health benefits to Maryland by 2020 and prevent 400 premature deaths annually, Whitman said.
By reducing problems such as the number of asthma attacks, cases of chronic bronchitis, and breathing-related emergency room visits, the initiative would save Maryland more than $3 billion annually, the agency estimated.
Clear Skies would dramatically cut the state’s air pollution, Whitman said. By 2020, she said, it would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 92 percent, nitrogen oxide emissions by 80 percent and mercury emissions by 85 percent, as well as reducing nitrogen pollution reaching the bay by 15 to 30 percent.
Nationwide, the agency predicted the program could produce $93 billion in health savings and save 12,000 lives in 2020 at a total cost of $6.5 billion.
While Whitman’s words were welcome, the feeling among environmentalists is that Clear Skies moves too slowly, and states will have to spend more to deal with pollution as older power plants continue to operate, said Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“Well, certainly we heard some very positive things,” Pierno said. “(But) the thought is that we’re not going to see the upgrades and the kind of renovations to the coal-fired (power) plants as quickly as we need to see them.”
Older power plants have been a cloud over the agency’s air quality agenda for some time. Problems for the agency increased after it relaxed rules requiring power producers to bring older plants up to current environmental standards when they upgrade them, a program known as New Source Review. Nine states, including Maryland, sued the agency to stop the changes.
The rule changes permit older, dirtier plants that might have been decommissioned to continue operating long past their designed lifespan, environmentalists said.
The lawsuit doesn’t make sense, Whitman said, as the rules the EPA is changing would have little real effect on power plants.
Whitman also came to Maryland to tout a program designed to improve air quality in schools.
Students from St. Mary’s school in Annapolis were on hand to promote the program that would have them performing research into the pollutants that trigger asthma attacks.
About one in five American schools have unsatisfactory air quality, which causes problems for nearly 11 million students, Whitman said.
The program, which provides technical aid to schools that are testing their air quality, would receive an additional $3 million in funding under Bush’s proposed budget, for a total of $24 million.