O'Malley's slipping grades on the environment

It's less than two months into the school year, and Gov. Martin O'Malley's grades have already slipped a little. He was marked down last week to a B+ from his usual glowing environmental marks by the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, largely on one issue: his failure to slow the proliferation of waste-to-energy incinerators in the state.

That may seem a relatively minor matter, but a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit advocacy group, provides ample evidence to the contrary. Trash incinerators generate significant amounts of mercury, lead, ash and other pollution, yet government has foolishly created significant incentives to build them.

Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed a measure designating such facilities Tier 1 under the state's Renewable Portfolio Standards, putting them on par with such genuinely clean forms of energy as solar and wind power. This was, of course, a short-sighted effort to provide certain jurisdictions an easy and affordable alternative to increasingly expensive landfills to dispose of their trash. Environmentalists are still angry that Governor O'Malley chose to sign the controversial bill into law.

But while the power generated by waste-to-energy facilities is modest (typically between 50 and 200 megawatts), it's far from cost-free. The public pays in air pollution and greenhouse gases. As the Environmental Integrity Project report notes, the trash incinerators emit more pollution per hour of energy than each of Maryland's four largest coal-fired power plants.

Not that the state is running a shortage of incinerators now. Maryland already has several, including Baltimore's Wheelabrator plant, and at least three projects are in the works that would more than double the amount of trash being burned. Most notable of them is the 140-megawatt Energy Answers incinerator being developed in Fairfield.

We don't advocate burying rubbish in landfills, but increased recycling is a far better and safer answer to the solid waste challenge. It's cheaper, too, if one factors in the high cost of the adverse health effects of trash burning. There's also an urgent need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere. A coastal state like Maryland should be especially sensitive to the threat of rising ocean levels posed by climate change.

How remarkable that Mr. O'Malley can speak out so frequently and forcefully on the need to embrace green energy — and even push for a bigger alternative energy commitment as part of Exelon Corp.'s planned takeover of Constellation Energy Group — yet countenance this gaping hole in Maryland's green energy policies.

The law needs to be revisited before Maryland becomes the nation's waste-to-energy capital. The new report suggests the state's standards for renewable energy have already become among the most relaxed in the nation. We have no business giving tax credits and other incentives to polluters who profit from burning trash that could be recycled instead.

Instead, the state should be investing more to promote clean renewables such as geothermal and solar energy, and should look for ways to reduce, not increase, toxic air pollutants. The Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia area is generally rated one of the worst 20 U.S. urban areas for smog; the last thing children, the elderly and asthma sufferers need is for more sources of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and other contributors to ground-level ozone to be added to the mix.

At the very least, state regulators ought to be prepared to closely monitor these new facilities to make sure they do not exceed emissions standards. That's a cost that ought to be borne by the owners, who should be obligated to protect residents of a state that, thanks to its elected officials in Annapolis, has so generously helped underwrite their profits.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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