BALTIMORE - Maryland, Virginia and Delaware are among the nation's top 20 power plant polluters, although Maryland has made significant cuts, according to rankings released Thursday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Virginia came in 12th and Maryland ranked 19th, an improvement from fifth place the year before. Delaware rose one spot from 21st the year before.
The new rankings are based on 2010 figures. The environmental group said pollution was down overall and that new standards imposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency mean power plant pollution should continue to drop.
"Since then, I am happy to report that Virginia power plants have announced some important steps to comply with these standards and reduce pollution," said John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Maryland has also made substantial progress on reducing emissions, which "resulted in a truly estonishing drop of 88 percent in electric sector air pollution," Walke said.
The Maryland Department of the Environment credited the state's improvement to a power plant emission law it said is the toughest on the East Coast. MDE said its review of the federal statistics used to compile the rankings show Maryland has made cuts unmatched by any other state.
"And the most recent emissions numbers, for 2011, show another decrease for a total reduction of 92 percent between 2009 and 2011," MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said. "`With that reduction, we would expect that Maryland would no longer be on the top 20 list if and when those numbers are considered."
Collin O'Mara, Delaware's environmental secretary, said two of the three power plants mentioned in the report have switched from coal-burning to natural gas and the third has since installed $300 million in pollution control equipment.
"So, we won't be anywhere near this list in future years," O'Mara said.
Maryland and Delaware officials each said one of the main air pollution concerns in the two states continues to be emissions from out-of-state power plants.
Jake Smeltz, a vice president with the Electric Power Generation Association, which represents power plant owners and operators in the mid-Atlantic, said emissions have been declining and will continue to because of the new EPA rules and the increased use of natural gas.
Smeltz said there has been a dramatic shift in the past several years with coal-fired power plants producing less and cleaner gas-fired plants producing more power. In addition to the new rules, the recent boom in natural gas production and drop in those prices have led to more electricity from that resource, the EPGA said.
The NRDC said toxic emissions overall decreased 19 percent primarily due to installation of controls and increased use of natural gas.
The reductions may prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks, according to the council.
Walke said falling natural gas prices have been the "single most influential factor" in the decision to convert to natural gas or retire coal-burning units.
WTOP's Hank Silverberg contributed to this report. Follow Hank Silverberg and WTOP on Twitter.
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