Hogan administration backsliding on clean air

Years of progress on cleaning Maryland's power plant emissions are being reversed by the Hogan administration, as the Sierra Club's Seth Bush reports here.

//By Seth Bush --  crossposted from Sierra Club Maryland Chapter blog// Last Wednesday's [Aug. 5] Air Quality Control Advisory Council (AQCAC or “ack-ack”) meeting was rough, and Maryland backslid on years’ worth of progress when the council shockingly voted to support a new air quality plan from Governor Larry Hogan’s administration that significantly weakens protections previously finalized under the O’Malley’s administration.

AQCAC is a 15-member citizen advisory board appointed by MDE that is responsible for reviewing and advising the Department on draft air quality rules and regulations which are being considered for adoption in order to achieve air quality and public health goals and protect the environment. Members include representatives from industry, labor, professional associations, local and regional government organizations, academia, farming, the medical community and the general public.

AQCAC gives the Department its advice on proposals by recommending adoption, rejection or modification of the draft regulations or other matters brought before it. They can’t definitively block or pass a rule, but MDE takes their advice very seriously.

Despite having less than 48 hours to review the most recent MDE draft of the regulation meant to replace the once-strong healthy air protections, AQCAC voted 7-3 in support of the Hogan administration's weak and grossly insufficient plan to clean up our state's dirtiest coal polluters.

Throughout the meeting, it felt like Gov. Hogan's administration used stall tactics in order to limit deliberation time for committee members, as well as hinder the voice of the people. MDE representatives filibustered a majority of the meeting with a relentlessly long 104-slide presentation of information unrelated to the specific NOx regulations up for discussion, which included touting air quality strides made in previous administrations (including Gov. O’Malley’s) and discussions on the wrong pollutants, such as particulate matter. Maryland has indeed made good progress on air quality issues, but we still have a long way to go given that 84% of Marylanders live in Counties that receive D or F grades for smog pollution from the American Lung Association.

Due to the extraneous and unreasonably long presentation, the public comment period was reduced to 30 seconds per person instead of 3 minutes, and there was insufficient time for quality deliberation of the Council. Thus, they were rushed to make a poorly informed decision that ultimately benefits the aging coal industry and not Maryland Families.

Nevertheless, the presence of Sierra Club volunteers and other concerned citizens made a significant statement, with over forty people showing up against the proposed regulations. A few key AQCAC members voiced serious concerns on the data presented and voted against the new version of the regulation. Also in attendance were representatives for Senator Manno, Senator Pinsky, and Delegate Stein. All of them made compelling statements in support of the previous rules from the O’Malley administration - it was great to have that support, and it’s our hope to carry it forward and expand that support over the next few weeks and months.

Through all of this, it is critical to remember that the Hogan administration and MDE have repeatedly made two claims throughout this entire process:

  1. The emissions plan from the Hogan administration will provide equal or greater public health protections than the O’Malley plan
  2. The rules were blocked in January to begin with in order “to allow public input, public hearing, and full due process before regulations may be finalized."

Those promises simply have not been met. Analysis from a third party shows that the new plan could result in 35% more NOx emissions on peak days than the O’Malley rule. Meanwhile, the new plan was unveiled with 5 business days allowed for public input. When the plan was weakened yet again after those 5 days at the specific request of NRG Energy, the public had less than 48 hours to prepare for the AQCAC meeting and the Council itself only had the same amount of time to review the further-weakened proposal. Nevertheless, they were still pressured by Gov. Hogan’s MDE to vote on the new plan, and they voted in favor of corporate polluters.

Fortunately, this campaign is far from over. We still have some opportunities to push for the strong coal plant cleanup plan we need, and we'll need help from concerned citizens across Maryland more than ever. With blessings from AQCAC, MDE will officially propose these regs in the Maryland Register sometime in the next few weeks. After that, they will be reviewed by the Administrative and Executive Legislative Review Committee (AELR), which is comprised of MD delegates and senators charged with vetting new regulations from the Executive Branch. They rubber-stamp most regulations that they receive, but we're going to do our best to make sure the committee take a very close look at these and ask some tough questions of Gov. Hogan.

There will also be a formal MDE hearing on the proposed regulations sometime in the next few months, and we will need concerned Marylanders to turn out once again to make our voices heard loud and clear.

Until then, we'll be on the ground in Baltimore and elsewhere gathering public support for stronger health protections against dirty coal.

Seth Bush is Maryland Beyond Coal Organizing Representative for the Maryland Sierra Club.