Power plants in up­wind states are pol­lut­ing Mary­land’s air. Scott Pruitt’s EPA can help.


For many in the North­east, May is a hope­ful time, promis­ing longer, warmer, brighter days ahead. But for pub­lic-health ad­vo­cates, the month marks a darker turn­ing point: the start of ozone sea­son. Ground-level ozone, the pri­mary in­gre­di­ent in ur­ban smog, con­trib­utes to a va­ri­ety of res­pi­ra­tory woes, in­clud­ing pre­ma­ture death. Ozone is of great­est con­cern in the sum­mer months, be­cause hot, sunny days are es­pe­cially con­ducive to its for­ma­tion.

Res­i­dents of the D.C. and Bal­ti­more ar­eas are no strangers to sum­mer smog. But this year, they might be able to breathe eas­ier. Un­der Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R), Mary­land has pe­ti­tioned the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency for help bring­ing ozone pol­lu­tion in the state to a safe level. Grant­ing this re­quest should be a no-brainer for EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt, who has spent re­cent weeks tout­ing a Back-to-Ba­sics agenda for his agency that pri­or­i­tizes “help­ing states achieve high air qual­ity tar­gets.”

Since the 1970s, the EPA has set na­tion­wide lim­its on the per­mis­si­ble con­cen­tra­tion of ozone in the air we breathe, but many states, in­clud­ing Mary­land, do not con­sis­tently achieve the agency’s stan­dards. Sev­eral Mary­land coun­ties have yet to sat­isfy ozone stan­dards es­tab­lished by the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2008, much less the more strin­gent lim­its is­sued by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2015.

The prob­lem isn’t that Mary­land has failed to re­duce ozone-form­ing emis­sions within its bor­ders. The prob­lem is that a great deal of Mary­land’s ozone pol­lu­tion — as much as 70 per­cent on some days — orig­i­nates in other states. That’s why, last Novem­ber, Mary­land’s Depart­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment for­mally pe­ti­tioned the EPA to force 36 coal-fired power plant units in five up­wind states — In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia and West Vir­ginia — to re­duce their emis­sions of ozone-form­ing ni­tro­gen ox­ides.

Mary­land is legally en­ti­tled to this re­lief. The Clean Air Act ex­plic­itly re­quires states to en­sure that no pol­lu­tion sources in their ju­ris­dic­tion “con­trib­ute sig­nif­i­cantly” to another state’s in­abil­ity to meet fed­eral airqual­ity stan­dards. When states don’t live up to this re­spon­si­bil­ity, the EPA must step in and con­trol the of­fend­ing sources it­self. In 2011, the EPA made a ma­jor ef­fort to re­duce in­ter­state ozone pol­lu­tion when it is­sued the Cross-State Air Pol­lu­tion Rule, which the Supreme Court up­held. But as Mary­land makes clear, ad­di­tional cuts are needed to pro­tect the pub­lic.

Fur­ther­more, Mary­land’s de­mands are far from bur­den­some. It doesn’t ex­pect the power plants named in its pe­ti­tion to in­stall ex­pen­sive new pol­lu­tion-con­trol tech­nol­ogy. The plants have the nec­es­sary equip­ment. Mary­land just wants them to use it more of­ten. Specif­i­cally, it wants the plants to op­er­ate emis­sions con­trols ev­ery day from May through Septem­ber. Mary­land knows that run­ning con­trols this fre­quently is fea­si­ble; its own plants have been re­quired to do so since 2015.

In Wash­ing­ton, en­vi­ron­men­tal de­bates tend to split along party lines, with Democrats sup­port­ing stronger pro­tec­tions and Repub­li­cans op­pos­ing them. But Ho­gan is hardly the first state of­fi­cial to put pub­lic health ahead of par­ti­san­ship when it comes to in­ter­state pol­lu­tion. In one mem­o­rable ex­am­ple, Ken­tucky’s Jef­fer­son County pe­ti­tioned the EPA in 1979 to con­trol emis­sions from a coal-fired power plant in neigh­bor­ing In­di­ana. Jef­fer­son County’s judge-ex­ec­u­tive at the time was Mitch McCon­nell, now the Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader.

Pruitt has char­ac­ter­ized many of the EPA’s past ef­forts to re­duce air pol­lu­tion as im­per­mis­si­ble in­tru­sions on state sovereignty. In­deed, when he was Ok­la­homa’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, he sued to block at least 11 sep­a­rate EPA reg­u­la­tions from tak­ing ef­fect. But even Pruitt has con­ceded that, when a pol­lu­tion prob­lem crosses state lines, fed­eral in­ter­ven­tion is some­times the only vi­able so­lu­tion. In this case, coal plants in In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia and West Vir­ginia are hurt­ing the peo­ple of Mary­land, and Mary­land’s elected of­fi­cials do not have the power to stop them. Scott Pruitt does. He should use it.

Res­i­dents of the D.C. and Bal­ti­more ar­eas are no strangers to sum­mer smog.

Richard L. Revesz and Jack Lienke are co-au­thors of “Strug­gling for Air: Power Plants and the ‘War on Coal.’ ” WRITE FOR US Lo­cal Opin­ions, a place for commentary about where we live, is look­ing for sub­mis­sions of 300 to 500 words on timely lo­cal top­ics. Sub­mis­sions must in­clude name, email ad­dress, street ad­dress and phone num­ber, and they will be edited for brevity and clar­ity. To sub­mit your ar­ti­cle, please go to wash­ing­ton­post.com/localop­in­ions.

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