BALTIMORE — Although Maryland is making strides in reducing its carbon footprint, air pollution from power plants is still creating environmental and health concerns, according to a recent report from Environment Maryland.
And some states bordering the Chesapeake Bay have power plants that rank among the dirtiest, according to the advocacy group.
Power plants create nitrogen oxide during combustion. This gas can be a significant source of air pollution when emitted in large quantities, and plays a fundamental role in the creation of smog and acid rain, according to University of Maryland Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Professor Ross Salawitch.
Salawitch said power plants suspend fine particles in the atmosphere, which are clearly linked to multiple heart and lung problems — some fatal — when they come in contact with the human body.
“One of the biggest problems of carbon pollution is air quality,” Baltimore Councilman William Cole said. “When you’re living in an area with severe carbon pollution it seriously affects the way you breathe.”
Cole added that if Maryland residents want a cleaner, safer future for their children, pollution must be cut. Tackling this problem means cleaning up the dirtiest power plants, he said.
Other health related issues of power plant combustion include the “release of metals such as mercury, that in excess levels are associated with a myriad of problems including harming the development of the nervous system of babies,” Salawitch said.
Power plant production contributes to high levels of surface ozone, which not only causes many respiratory issues within humans, but also hurts agricultural yields, such as crop production, according to Salawitch.
The combustion process releases sulfur and nitrogen, creating sulfuric and nitric compounds that contribute to acid rain and acidification of important lakes and waterways, including the Chesapeake bay, he said. Power plants in states bordering bay most likely contribute to its acidification.
According to Environment Maryland’s report, two states bordering the Chesapeake bay region — Pennsylvania and West Virginia — are in the top 10 states with the highest rate for carbon emissions from their top five most polluting power plants. Pennsylvania released 55.7 million metric tons of carbon in 2011 and West Virginia released 49.3 million metric tons. In contrast, Maryland’s number was slightly below average with 18.6 million metric tons, while Delaware was among the lowest with 3.9 million metric tons.
According to Environment Maryland’s Field Associate Talya Tavor, Maryland currently has seven operational power plants, the top five most polluting being Brandon Shores and Herbert A. Wagner Generating Stations, owned by Riverstone Holdings LLC’s Raven Power, and NRG Energy, Inc.’s Morgantown, Chalk Point and Dickerson Generating Stations. All of Maryland’s power plants combined generate as much carbon annually as 5.2 million cars, she said.
According to NRG Energy, Inc., spokesman David Gaier, the company has focused on enacting a number of clean energy initiatives, including investing or committing more than $1.5 billion to creating the nation’s largest solar energy portfolio. “NRG is the leading voice on climate change, and the power sector’s role in reducing greenhouse gases from the next wave of new power generation, while meeting growing energy needs,” Gaier said.
Morgantown, Dickerson and Chalk Point Generating Stations all comply with Maryland’s Healthy Air Act, along with all other state and federal emissions regulations, and are among some of the cleanest coal plants in operation, according to Gaier. “They each have various back-end emissions control systems that dramatically reduce mercury, sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides, and today produce less than 10 percent of those emissions as compared to the past,” Gaier said.
Officials at Riverstone Holdings LLC’s Raven Power did not respond to requests for comment.
Salawitch explained there are complex, different factors that contribute to why certain power plants in some states release more air pollution.
“Nonetheless, despite the complexity of this question, Maryland is undoubtedly a leader in the reduction of emissions of pollutants from power plants,” Salawitch said.
One reason for this lead is that Maryland was one of the first states to run selective catalytic reduction units, which work to remove nitrous oxide from exhaust, all year-round at its power plants. Other states that have adopted this technology only use it during the months when air pollution is at its most intense due to heat, according to Salawitch.
Maryland ranked in the lower tier of stationary sources of nitrous oxide in 2010.
“By this measure, Maryland clearly has a small impact of power plant pollution compared to nearby states,” Salawitch said.
According to Tavor, Maryland is making strides to cut power plant emissions. Maryland is one of nine states that make up the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a plan working to reduce the amount of carbon being released from power plants in the northeast, with more plans on the way.
Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan to cut emissions 25 percent by 2020 is among the methods the state is using to decrease its pollution impact. The plan includes more than 150 programs and incentives aimed at cutting emissions from multiple industries, primarily energy and transportation. O’Malley’s plan makes Maryland a frontrunner in strategic emission-cutting plans, according to ThinkProgress, a nonprofit research group.
“There’s always more we can be doing but we’re showing the rest of the U.S. that this is what needs to be done,” Tavor said.