Cleaning Maryland's air will not be easy or cheap

September 18, 1990|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

In the next few years, gasoline-powered lawn mowers, oil-based house paints and lighter fluid for barbecue grills could become scarce on store shelves in the Baltimore area.

Gas pumps at service stations in the city and suburbs are likely to sprout those bulbous, vapor-catching nozzles so unpopular in Washington. And consumers can expect to pay more for cars, utilities and for a range of other goods, including bread and cookies.

Those are just some of the changes Marylanders could face if new federal clean-air legislation becomes law.

The House and Senate each approved amendments strengthening the Clean Air Act earlier this year, but there were major differences between the two bills. A 148-member conference committee has been meeting since July in an effort to agree on how to reduce smog, acid rain and toxic air pollution over the next 20 years.

The stakes, and the price tag, could be steep, particularly for Baltimore.

Baltimore's air is among the smoggiest in the country, according to state and federal environmental officials. Ozone is the main ingredient of smog, and the Baltimore metropolitan area has the ninth worst ozone problem in the nation, behind five California cities -- Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno, Sacramento and San Diego -- and New York, Chicago and Houston.

As for acid rain, rainfall in Maryland is roughly 10 times as acidic as natural precipitation, raising concerns that it may be impairing fish reproduction and helping pollute the Chesapeake Bay. And industries in the city and across the state are routinely releasing millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.


Curing those pollution problems will not be easy, and it certainly will not be cheap.

George P. Ferreri, air management director for the Maryland Department of the Environment, predicts that the clean-air legislation will have far-reaching effects on how people get to work, how they maintain their homes and lawns and on what they will pay for virtually everything.

"There are going to be some major, major lifestyle changes because of this Clean Air Act," Ferreri says.

Business and industry spokesmen agree, and they question whether it will be worth it.

"While everybody, including the business community, does want environmental protection, we want a proper balance," says Susan K. Roth of the Clean Air Working Group, a coalition of businesses and industries lobbying for "reasonable" pollution controls.

Industry-sponsored studies predict that the legislation could cost Americans up to $91 billion annually, more than three times the $25 billion price tag predicted by the Bush administration.

The studies also project that as many as 3.7 million workers could lose their jobs or suffer losses in pay if Congress adopts the stiffer pollution-control requirements included in either House or Senate versions of the bill passed last spring.

The studies predict that in Maryland, the clean-air legislation could cost state businesses $872 million a year and could jeopardize 67,000 jobs, or nearly 3 percent of the state's work force.

Business and industry lobbyists warn that imposing costly new pollution controls now could further weaken a sagging national economy. Oil industry officials say that additional cleanup requirements could prompt some U.S. refineries to shut down at a time when peak production of gasoline is needed because of the Persian Gulf crisis.

Environmentalists discount such warnings, noting that business lobbyists made similar predictions of widespread plant closings and massive layoffs before the original Clean Air Act was passed in 1970.

An EPA study last week even suggested that the new law could help ease America's dependence on foreign oil in two ways: To curb acid rain, utilities would switch from petroleum to natural gas; and to develop cleaner-burning gasoline, oil companies would switch to such non-petroleum additives as ethanol.

"Yes, it's going to cost something, no question," says Edward Barks, spokesman for the National Clean Air Coalition, a collection of environmental and health groups lobbying for tough new pollution controls. But Barks says "folks have shown that they're willing to pay more for clean air."


The impact is likely to go beyond the pocketbook, though.

"If the Maryland public wants clean air, they're going to have to accept that they're going to have to do some things differently than they're now doing," says Ferreri.

To curb acid rain, power plants would have to switch to cleaner-burning fuels -- or equip smokestacks with expensive scrubbers to remove the pollutants that have acidified lakes in the Northeast and harmed the Chesapeake Bay.

Sixty percent or more of the acid rain falling in Maryland comes from outside the state, borne by prevailing weather patterns from power plants and other sources to the west.

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