There are four power plants within 13 miles of Brandywine, an unincorporated town in southern Prince George’s County. Other industrial hazards such as a sand and gravel mine and a fly ash landfill also exist in the community, which helps explain the dozens of diesel trucks that pass through the town on a daily basis.
More than 70% of Brandywine’s population is Black. Some residents call it an environmental sacrifice zone for Maryland and the Washington, D.C., region — and Maryland lawmakers are trying to change that.
The Prince George’s County Stop Environmentally Unjust Coal and Gas Plants Act of 2021, a bill proposed by the Prince George’s House delegation, would preclude the Maryland Public Service Commission from permitting any more coal or gas fired power plants to be constructed in Prince George’s County.
House Bill 613 had originally prohibited any power plants to exist in Prince George’s County altogether, but Del. Julian Ivey (D-Prince George’s) said the delegation is working on amending the bill so that it is “prospective legislation rather than retroactive” and allows current energy generating facilities to continue operating.
“For the time being, it would draw the line and say no new coal or gas power plants would be allowed in Prince George’s County limits,” Ivey told the House Economics Matter Committee Thursday.
“As we’re doing the work of moving away from fossil fuels, moving towards renewable energy, this is really just one iteration of that fight,” he continued.
There are currently three energy generating facilities in Prince George’s County.
Ivey said the bill has not been voted out of the Prince George’s delegation, but he plans to push for a vote on it next week.
James Lawson, a resident of Accokeek, referred to a 2019 health assessment published by the county health department and the University of Maryland and said residents in southern Prince George’s County have been found to suffer from higher rates of respiratory illness, which Lawson blamed on the power plants in the region.
“Prince George’s County should not be should not be a place where every polluting undesirable industry project is welcome,” Lawson said. “Prince George’s County has more than its share of power plants and the resulting adverse health effects.”
A fifth proposed power plant in Brandywine, which would have only been half a mile from the town’s elementary school, recently withdrew its application, Henry Cole of Clean Air Prince George’s told lawmakers.
But this is not enough, as there is nothing to prevent other companies from coming in and proposing another fossil fuel power plant, he said. “The southern part of Prince George’s county has become an environmental sacrifice zone.”
On the other hand, some labor unions and the Public Service Commission said the legislation would harm energy reliability for the state. Maryland depends disproportionally on energy produced outside of the state, according to Lisa Smith, the legislative director of the Public Service Commission.
Since power plants cannot be quickly replaced by renewable energy sources, the measure could compel Maryland to purchase more energy out of state, including from power plants that burn coal, Jeff Guido, Maryland director of the Baltimore-D.C. Building Trades Council said.
“You can generate electricity for your house with solar panels, but it’s only on a small scale. You cannot store solar energy on a large scale,” said Tom Clark of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “All I ask is wait until the technology catches up before we close these power plants down.”
Clark also highlighted that the Chalk Point facility, one of the four power plants close to Brandywine, is used as an emergency electrical station for PJM, the regional transmission organization for East Coast states.
The Public Service Commission also contended that shutting down existing power plants would have significant reliability costs, as the generating facilities in Prince George’s County currently make up one quarter of the state’s total generation capacity, according to Joey Chan of the PSC.
“Taking this much generation offline is bound to raise serious reliability concerns and given what we saw happen in Texas, the concerns can lead to devastating consequences,” he said.
If the Prince George’s delegation amendment, which would allow existing power plants to continue operating, is approved by the county delegation, Chan said PSC would probably take no position on the remainder of the bill.
Still, Smith cautioned the Economic Matters committee about the bill’s implications for future energy reliability.
“It’s important to think long and hard about this type of legislation that would stop certain types of generation,” she said. “We know the public relies on the PSC as a regulator to ensure safe, reliable and affordable service.”