Volume 14, Issue 12 ~ March 23 - March 29, 2006

Updating Cleaner Air

The mammoth Healthy Air Act passed the Senate like a barge but still has a perilous journey through the House

by Carrie Steele

It died last year.

It’s been brought back to life, rallied by voters in bright life vests. It’s been praised, argued over and hashed out in countless meetings. The Healthy Air Act — known as SB 154 under the dome of the General Assembly and dubbed the Four-Pollutant Bill last year — isn’t a bill for the faint of heart.

Accompanied by citizen advocates, green groups and an army of private voters, this hefty bill has been pushed through the Maryland Senate like a barge, first chugging its way through the Senate Committee on Education Health and Environmental Affairs.

Last week, after some four hours of debate on the Senate floor, the Healthy Air Act passed its second round of voting by a vote of 34 to 12.

All bills get such a preliminary vote. Testimony on the floor also helps clarify just what a bill will do and what it won’t.

“In that vote, they’re basically voting for a favorable committee report,” explained Dawn Stolzfus of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. “It’s good to have the debate now and have people think about it. There were a lot of inaccurate claims that it would lead to rate increases.”

Then came the amendments, like little dinghies tacked on to change the bill and perhaps its course, including an amendment to remove the carbon dioxide provision, leaving only three of the four original pollutants covered. That one didn’t pass.

On the first day of spring, two-thirds of the full Senate passed the Healthy Air Act in a vote 33 to 14.

It may well mean the difference between life and death.

Maryland’s Healthy Air Act would save 96 lives each year in 2010 compared to 27 lives saved under existing federal air rules, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

It can also save employers a bundle on sick days and employee absenteeism.

The Healthy Air Act’s curbs on air pollution will save 17,350 workdays each year in 2010, compared to 4,925 workdays saved under federal air rules.

A Weak Safety Net

The Healthy Air Act has won half the battle as delegates now prepare to do their own hashing out in the House.

Meanwhile, Gov. Robert Ehrlich has proposed his own Clean Power Rule to curb pollutants, which the Maryland Air Quality Control Advisory Council voted eight to one last week to accept. Rules like this one specify enforcement guidelines for existing laws.

The Governor’s Clean Power Rule would allow some 48,000 tons of sulfur to pollute Maryland air in 2010, compared with the Healthy Air Act’s 39,925 tons.

The stricter Healthy Air Act will — if it passes the House — trump Gov. Ehrlich’s Clean Power Rule.

The Healthy Air Act goes further to cap sulfur output to 24,645 tons in 2015. Gov. Ehrlich’s rule stops at that initial 48,000 tons.

For mercury, the Healthy Air act demands that plants cut emissions by 90 percent by 2010. Gov. Ehrlich’s rule waits until 2015 to enforce that regulation.

Carbon dioxide emissions are also cut by the Healthy Air Act. Gov. Ehrlich’s rule, on the other hand, skips that pollutant.

Now, the Healthy Air Act moves onto the House of Delegates, where a final vote will determine our fate — at least in so far as coal-burning pollution is concerned.

Before the bill goes to the full House, it has a perilous journey through the Economic Matters Committee, which voted down the same bill last year before it even got to the Senate.

This year could be a different story.

“Support for the bill in the House of Delegates,” says Stolzfus, “is looking stronger than we previously thought.”

Read more about the Healthy Air Act in last week’s issue of Bay Weekly, “Something for Everybody in the Maryland General Assembly” [Vol. 14, #11; March 16].

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.