Federal officials say the air near a Pasadena power plant contains unhealthy levels of a pollutant that can cause health issues. State officials, pointing to recent improvements, say the air is safe.
Neighbors of the plant want data to judge the situation for themselves.
The Greater Pasadena Council, which represents more than 90 homeowners' associations in the Pasadena area, is asking for $200,000 in air quality monitoring equipment to be installed near the Herbert A. Wagner Generating Station, a coal-burning power plant.
"We want information, knowledge," said Allan Straughan, the council's president. "All we're asking is, let's see if we have a problem or not."
Emissions from the Wagner plant are the subject of disagreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment.
In July, citing emissions estimates from the past three years, the EPA ruled that areas within a 17-mile radius of the plant are exposed to unhealthy levels of sulfur dioxide, a pollutant that can set off asthma symptoms. Baltimore sees incidences of asthma in children at twice the national rate.
Environmentalists said the announcement is proof the state should retire the Wagner plant and adopt cleaner energy sources.
"We're glad the EPA will hold the state accountable for enforceable pollution reductions from our coal plants," David Smedick, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign representative in Maryland, said in a statement in July. "This is just another example of why Maryland needs to move beyond coal." The Sierra Club prompted the EPA's evaluation of sulfur dioxide levels by filing a lawsuit asking the agency to enforce sulfur dioxide standards it set in 2010.
MDE officials dispute the EPA's ruling. They say recent improvements to the power plant, including a switch to burning coal with lower sulfur levels, have resulted in better air quality. A 2015 MDE report showed plummeting emissions of sulfur dioxide following the 2006 passage of the Healthy Air Act, which mandated reductions in particle pollutants.
"Our analysis shows ... that the area is meeting the federal health-based standard," MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said.
He said MDE is working on a state implementation plan in response to the EPA's ruling, which will lay out how the plant is meeting air quality standards as well as the enforcement measures in place for ensuring it continues to do so.
Talen Energy, which owns the Wagner plant, said it is meeting state and federal requirements.
"We will be working with the state as they develop ... regulations, and when implemented we will ensure that we are in compliance with them," said Talen Energy spokesman Todd Martin. "Talen Energy is an environmentally responsible company ... (and) we have for a number of years been working on reducing our emissions at the Wagner plant."
Both EPA's and MDE's conclusions rest on modeling, or projections of air quality based on meteorological data, emission rates, height of a plant's smoke stacks and other data. The closest air quality monitor to the Wagner plant is in Essex.
John Leopold, chairman of the Greater Pasadena Council's environmental committee, said the community wants "an accurate reading close to the source of the plant."
Leopold, who served as Anne Arundel County executive from 2006 to 2013, pushed for a ban on burying fly ash, a coal-combustion byproduct, during his tenure as executive.
"Citizens have not been able to rely on MDE to protect their health," he said.
Council chairman Derek Fink, R-Pasadena, said he will consider introducing a resolution that asks the state and federal government to fund an air quality monitor.
"It's certainly something I'm looking into and working toward," Fink, whose father worked at the Wagner power plant for more than 40 years, said. "The initial thought makes sense and is something I'd be supportive of."
Apperson said air quality monitors are traditionally paid for through federal grants, not by the state. EPA spokesman Roy Seneca said the agency has received the Greater Pasadena Council's letter and is working on a response.
Credit: By Amanda Yeager - firstname.lastname@example.org