Amid a petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for better air pollution control in five states, Maryland was selected to lead a regional air quality board.

Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles was unanimously elected chairman of the Ozone Transport Commission on June 6.

The commission is a 13-state collaboration created under the federal Clean Air Act to control interstate smog. It advises the EPA on the long-distance movement of airborne pollution from power plants, vehicles and factories and develops regional solutions in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Maryland and other states are currently trying to figure out how to comply with new National Ambient Air Quality Standards that lower acceptable levels of ozone from 75 to 70 parts per billion. Seventy percent of Maryland’s ozone currently comes from out of state sources, Grumbles said during an in-person interview on Friday.

Ozone acts as natural protection from ultraviolet radiation as light passes through the higher parts of the atmosphere. At the ground-level, ozone – also known as smog – can irritate the respiratory system and aggravate asthma and other chronic lung diseases.

Maryland has one of the best air quality modeling and monitoring systems in the region, Grumbles said. He brings data and scientists to the meetings with him to help the commission.

Grumbles served as secretary during his first year on the commission in 2015 and then vice-chairman in 2016.

“It’s an opportunity for us to make sure the Ozone Transport Commission follows the science,” Grumbles said.

One of his priorities as chairman is to make sure the commission has a good relationship with the new administration.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said he would like the agency to focus on its core missions, which would includes non-attainment of air quality standards. This could put the commission in a place to make specific recommendations for regional improvement, Grumbles said.

Maryland submitted a petition to the EPA in November 2016 against 19 power plants in five upwind states that are contributing to air pollution in Maryland. Pennsylvania is one state named in the petition, and it is also a member of the commission.

The states have had tense discussions, but Maryland remains committed to collaboration and improving air quality, he said.

“Petitions are always the next to last resort,” Grumbles said, with lawsuits being the final.

Delaware and Connecticut – which are also members of the commission – have also filed petitions under section 126 of the Clean Air Act in 2016. The EPA has not ruled on any of the petitions.

“The prediction is there will be more,” Grumbles said.

For two years prior to Maryland filing its petition, it worked with the State Collaborative of Ozone Transport to try to put in place more power plant controls with member states and states outside the commission. There was progress, but not enough.

“The status quo is not acceptable,” Grumbles said.

Maryland’s petition asks the EPA to require Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to use existing control technology effectively each day of the ozone season from May 1 to Sept. 30 to control air pollution.

The 36 electric power units in the petition already have pollution controls equipment installed, according to Maryland’s petition. The states are not running those pollution controls all the time and are emitting air pollution that contributes to Maryland’s smog problems.

“The data is clear, that if those power plants did the same thing we require, [it] would make a big difference downwind,” Grumbles said.

A letter submitted to the EPA by Environmental Defense Fund Senior Attorney Graham McCahan in support of Maryland, Delaware and Connecticut’s outstanding petitions requested the EPA approve the petitions prior to the start of the ozone season on May 1.

The EPA announced in January it would respond to Maryland’s petition no later than July 15 and has taken no other actions since.

Follow Samantha Hogan on Twitter: @SAHogan.

Samantha Hogan is the state house, environment, agriculture and energy reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

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