Canadian wildfires have been generating an ominous haze and hazardous local air quality across the region this summer, triggering spikes in harmful fine particulates that have been hard to miss.

Canadian wildfires have sent regional air pollution levels to record-breaking highs in recent weeks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s, including this reading from June 8.
Courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency

According to a widely reported conversion chart, the worst days in the region were the equivalent of smoking more than a pack of cigarettes a day — a grim prospect, especially for children and pregnant women. The Environmental Protection Agency guidelines prompted residents to avoid or strongly reduce outside activity during air quality alerts, as the World Health Organization attributes 7 million extra deaths per year to air pollution. 

Real-time air pollution in early June sparked Code Purple (very unhealthy) and even Code Maroon (hazardous) alerts for the first time ever last month.
Courtesy of PurpleAir

The problem for local residents isn’t merely Canadian smoke, however. According to the American Lung Association State of the Air report for 2023, the county and the District both received an F for consistently unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone pollution — the kind generated by power plants and road traffic, among other sources. Meanwhile, Montgomery County earned a C.

Smoke out the airplane window
Photo credit: Heather Marléne Zadig

A variety of factors contribute to this air quality gap between adjacent jurisdictions, but local advocacy groups have called Prince George’s County “an environmental sacrifice zone,” where polluting industries are disproportionately concentrated in communities of color. In response to chronically low air quality, for instance, the towns of Cheverly and Capitol Heights commissioned a targeted air-monitoring system to study how much traffic and local industries  (specifically, recycling centers and concrete manufacturing plants) are contributing to the problem. 

County government reports have also highlighted persistent and pervasive environmental justice concerns, particularly related to the placement of air-polluting power plants. In 2016, Earthjustice submitted a Title VI civil rights complaint on behalf of local advocacy groups in southern Prince George’s County to the federal government, claiming that the state’s environmental and natural resources departments discriminated against the majority-Black unincorporated community of Brandywine by approving two new power plants near three existing plants within 13 miles of the town. 

The case was mediated in 2020 by two federal agencies under the Trump Administration, but the resolution fell short of the community’s goals, compelling the state to identify a “community resource officer” for residents interested in power-plant permits, and to develop a nondiscrimination program unrelated to the primary concern of the complaint: the plant. Ultimately, both new power plants were permitted, though only the PSEG Energy Center was completed (the second was abandoned for potentially unrelated financial reasons).

Maryland Matters reported in 2021 that Prince George’s County generated a quarter of the state’s electricity, but census data shows the county makes up just 15% of the state’s population. According to the most recently published data, power plants in Prince George’s County produce more than nine times the energy of Montgomery County plants per capita, while this county actually consumes less energy overall than Montgomery County (see Table 1). Most energy production in both counties involves burning fuel sources, like solid waste (trash) and/or natural gas (methane, a fossil fuel), so the dominant factor in the power emissions gap is the substantial difference in power generation.


Table 1: Current Energy Consumption* v. Energy Produced by County in MWh**

Total Energy Consumed Energy Consumed per Capita Total Energy Produced Energy Produced per Capita
Prince George’s County 9,117,918 MWh 9.52 MWh 4,819,876 MWh 5.03 MWh
Montgomery County 10,064,527 MWh 9.52 MWh 572,004 MWh 0.54 MWh

Source: Find Energy, an online database of energy sources drawn from government data.
*According to the most recently released batch of data for the previous 12 months.
**MWh = Megawatt hours, or 1,000 kilowatts of electricity generated per hour

In contrast to the years-long Brandywine battle, which ended in defeat for residents, local resistance to a proposed power plant in Charles County, Md. — this time from Virginians — had a starkly different outcome. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association protested the proposed project across the Potomac River in Maryland because it would have marred “George Washington’s view.” Following a single week of PR campaigns in 2018, they succeeded. According to ProPublica, the ladies association currently has $342 million dollars in assets. As of 2021, the per capita income of Brandywine was $53,295 per year.