Maryland power plant closing to avoid pollution rules

Plant OpeningsEnvironmental IssuesEnvironmental PollutionCoalU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyFirstEnergy Corp.Business

An aging, little-used power plant in Williamsport is slated to be closed later this year rather than meet new federal air-pollution limits, its owner announced Thursday, in what could be a spate of such shutdowns resulting from the controversial Obama administration regulation.

FirstEnergy Corp. said it intends to retire six of its older coal-burning plants in three states, including the R. Paul Smith generating station in Western Maryland on the banks of the Potomac River.

The company, based in Akron, Ohio, said it had decided it wouldn't be worth it to invest in new air-emission controls to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's recently finalized regulation requiring steep reductions in mercury and other hazardous pollutants.

"It just wasn't cost-effective to spend the money to retrofit," said FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin.

The 116-megawatt Maryland plant, built in 1947, has been used only sparingly in recent years to meet peak electricity demands on hot summer days, the company spokesman said. It employs 40 people.

The company had threatened to shut it down earlier as a result of Maryland's Healthy Air Act, which required emission reductions two years ago on par with those now mandated under the new EPA rule. State officials exempted the facility from most of the law after the operator of the Mid-Atlantic region's electric grid said the loss of the plant could jeopardize power reliability.

The plant was required to curtail releases of toxic mercury under the state law, according to Jay Apperson of the Maryland Department of the Environment. But its emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide were capped rather than ordered reduced by 70 percent to 80 percent, as other coal plants have had to do. The two gases contribute to fine-particle pollution, which can cause breathing difficulties and premature death. Nitrogen oxide also contributes to summertime smog and to nutrient pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.

Environmentalists, who have challenged the plant's exemption from state pollution limits, welcomed news of its closure, saying it was the oldest and dirtiest of Maryland's coal burners.

"This is a victory both for children's lungs and for efforts to fight climate change in Maryland," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. His group contends the in-state plant also released more than 200,000 tons of climate-altering carbon dioxide in recent years.

Energy industry officials have warned that the EPA's new mercury limits and other pollution rules could prompt widespread closures of older coal-burning power plants, raising the risks of brownouts and blackouts. The EPA came under intense pressure late last year to postpone action, but agency officials disputed the dire predictions and went ahead. While some plants would opt to shut down rather than install pollution controls, regulators said, they predicted the number would not jeopardize electric reliability.

Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA official whose Washington lobbying firm represents energy interests, said the only surprising thing about FirstEnergy's announcement was the timing. Other companies apparently are holding off shuttering plants, he said, in hopes that Republican election victories in November will lead to a regulatory rollback.

FirstEnergy said its shutdown plans are still contingent on a determination that none of the targeted plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland is needed to keep the lights on. PJM Interconnection, the Mid-Atlantic grid operator, will make its decision known within 90 days, spokesman Ray Dotter said.

The Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates electric service in the state, does not expect the closure of the Williamsport plant to affect either power reliability or rates, spokeswoman Regina L. Davis said in an email.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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