Cleaning the air at water's expense?
Environmentalists worry that the push to clean Maryland's air could wind up degrading the state's waters.
Under the state's Healthy Air Act passed in 2006, coal-burning power plants are required to reduce their emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury, which impair our breathing, foul the Chesapeake Bay and make some fish unsafe to eat in large quantities. Beginning next year, the plants are supposed to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by almost 70%, sulfure dioxide emissions by 80%, and mercury emissions by 80%.
To meet those requirements, the coal plants are in the process of installing "scrubbers" to clean the pollutants out of their smokestacks before they get into the air. But environmentalists are concerned that the pollutants scrubbed from the stacks may wind up in the water if there aren't adequate safeguards to clean the plants' wastewater.
Even before the scrubbers are hooked up, they note, at least one coal-burner, Mirant Corp.'s Morgantown plant in Charles County, is discharging hundreds of pounds of toxic chemicals daily into the Potomac River. Based on the company's own sampling, the water coming out of the Morgantown plant's outfall pipe into the river is carrying more than 200 pounds of arsenic and nearly 600 pounds of selenium a day.
"It's just shifting pollution from one medium to another in an area already suffering from pollution,'' says Jennifer Peterson, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington. The University of Maryland's environmental law clinic pressed the group's concerns with the state Department of the Environment.
Selenium is of particular concern because it is highly toxic to fish and wildlife. Christopher Rowe, a scientist at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, says relatively small doses can impair fish reproduction. The metal tends to accumulate in animal tissue, he points out, so exposure to seemingly insignificant amounts can build up over time.
Yet company and state spokespersons say the concentrations of those poisonous metals in the Morgantown plant's discharge are below state water-quality standards, meaning they're so diluted by the massive amounts of water released by the plant that they're considered no threat to fish or people. UM scientist Rowe cautions that even if levels are low in the water, little is known about whether selenium might settle out on the bottom, where it could begin to build up and get into the fish food chain. But Mirant spokeswoman Misty Allen maintains the contaminants aren't coming from the plant at all - levels at the outfall are similar to what's measured where the plant siphons water from the Potomac for cooling and other uses.
In any case, notes MDE's Jay Apperson, since the university law clinic raised concerns, the state has required the company to do additional monitoring of toxics in its discharge and will reopen the five-year permit in six months to review whether any limits need to be imposed.
That review may be timely, as the plants will be removing even more harmful pollutants from the air when the scrubbers get turned on. Environmentalists worry that those pollutants have to get disposed of somewhere - and they want to ensure they're not flushed out an outfall into rivers and streams.
The issue isn't limited to Maryland - under threat of a lawsuit by environmental groups, the Environmental Protection Agency recently acknowledged it hasn't updated its nationwide standards for limiting water pollution from power plants in nearly 30 years and pledged to review them. Given the slow pace of federal regulation, though, it may take years for new limits to be put in place - which is why environmental groups are pressing for state action. For more on the national issue, there was a New York Times article about it recently, which you can read here.
Baltimore Sun 2007 file photo