Task force proposed to study GM plant Lawmakers endorse closer look at future of minivan factory.

April 12, 1991|By John Fairhall and Liz Atwood | John Fairhall and Liz Atwood,Evening Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- Although General Motors says its Baltimore plant is not in imminent danger of being closed, Maryland lawmakers are asking Gov. William Donald Schaefer to form a task force to deal with issues affecting the plant's future.

The letter requesting the task force was drafted yesterday by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and also signed by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, whose district includes the plant.

Schaefer aide Mark L. Wasserman termed the task force request "sensible," adding that it "probably represents the best way to ensure that Maryland is as competitive as possible."

Mikulski said she was planning to visit the plant today to speak with union and management officials to find out more about their concerns.

The request for a task force comes on the heels of a plant visit last Friday by Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who said he was "going to fight hard" to ensure the survival of the Broening Highway facility, which employs 3,700 workers and produces minivans.

Despite the flurry of concern, GM plant spokesman Terry Youngerman said the 56-year-old facility faces no immediate threat.

"You could put together a scenario that the Baltimore plant is going away in eight, nine or 10 years, but no one's been saying we're going out of business," he said.

Youngerman took the opportunity to attack a favorite target of American automakers, vehicle fuel-efficiency standards. He said GM has been concerned lately by legislation pending in Congress, co-sponsored by Mikulski, that would raise the standards by the middle of the decade. The minivan, which is produced only at the Baltimore plant, is unlikely to meet the proposed standards, Youngerman said.

GM officials also are concerned about interpretation of the updated Clean Air Act passed last year. They note that Baltimore is at a disadvantage because it does not meet federal air standards, and so manufacturing plants must meet stricter air-control regulations than they would in other areas.

Most of the plant's pollution stems from its painting operation, Youngerman said.

In 1990, GM created a new minivan that is 10 inches longer than standard models. The extra spray-painting created additional air pollution, Youngerman said. He claimed that such a modification would not be possible today under the updated Clean Air Act unless the plant reduced emissions elsewhere in the operation.

Youngerman said GM spent about $250 million retooling the plant to produce minivans in 1984. It spent between $50 million and $60 million last year to produce the longer minivan.

GM plans to overhaul the minivan for the 1996 model year. In 1993 the company will decide where the new model will be made. Baltimore GM officials say they're worried that the cost of complying with federal air-pollution laws and regulations will make the plant less competitive when GM decides which factories will produce the minivan.

Mikulski said GM officials have complained to her that federal environmental regulations are unnecessarily burdensome. She suggested the task force could consider that issue and any others affecting the plant's future.

Cardin said "the passage of the Clean Air Act should not affect the operations at Broening Highway." He said he wants to "anticipate potential areas that could be problems."

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