California Air Control Move East

November 10, 1991

When Maryland and Virginia considered using their authority under the rewritten Clean Air Act to tighten auto emission standards, the immediate and obvious problem was the danger of getting too far ahead of their neighbors. Only California, with its huge population and its unique air-quality problems, could afford to go its own way and face the wrath of oil companies and automakers combined.

Until recently, that is. Now, a nine-state and District of Columbia agreement to implement California's stringent auto pollution controls ensures that fleeing across state lines or refusing to sell certain models within a state will no longer work. Taken together, the nine states, the District and California represent one-third of the U.S. population and most of the highly urbanized regions, where pollution problems are most intense.

That would help reduce non-point-source acid rain that plagues the sensitive Chesapeake Bay watershed and other waterways such as the Delaware and Hudson. It at last attacks the threat to the delicate "microlayer" at the surface of these waterways, full of organisms critical to many other seacoast species. Migratory fish, crabs and birds, plants that scour the waters, shellfish siphoning detritus from above all depend on that microlayer.

The biggest beneficiaries, however, will be the people of Maryland and the other states. Particulate pollution, identified in the 1960s as the culprit choking urban skies, has been attacked with major controls on factory and power-plant smokestacks. Sulfur and tetraethyl lead could be controlled by fuel switching, plus existing pollution controls. Nitrogen oxides and the complex gases causing low-atmosphere ozone concentrations, though, need new controls on automobiles. That's always a touchy consumer issue. Getting all nine states to endorse such controls, with the likely addition of Vermont and Rhode Island, gives the proposal a major boost.

This is only part of the battle, though. Maryland's General Assembly, which defeated a similar plan last winter, must act on the tightened tailpipe emissions standards. So must Virginia. In Pennsylvania, Gov. William Casey can direct state officials to get cracking immediately. Cleaning up the air over the East Coast will take more than a decade, but then, it took many decades to bring about today's sorry state. One thing's sure: the time is long past for more delaying studies of the problem.

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