The Maryland General Assembly once again finds itself choosing between public health and the special interests of the automobile and oil industries.
Automobile and oil companies habitually invest first in highly-paid lobbyists to block environmental action by the government. Their approach is based on the shameless use of hyperbole, inaccuracy and exaggeration.
As far back as 1970, Lee Iacocca claimed that federal clean air legislation ''could prevent continued production of automobiles'' and that it posed ''a threat to the entire American economy and to every person in America.'' One may recall the auto industry made similar claims about vehicle safety and air bags.
At issue now is whether Maryland should adopt more stringent regulations over automobile tailpipe emissions.
Under the federal Clean Air Act, Maryland, with one of the worst ground-level ozone pollution problems in the nation, must make dramatic gains in air quality by the year 2005 or face rather extraordinary sanctions.
Those sanctions may include elimination of federal highway money, restrictions on development or even on when citizens would be allowed to drive.
To avoid the sanctions, the options legally available to the state are limited: either further restrict industrial sources or tighten up standards on automobiles.
Under federal laws, factories and power plants have spent millions of dollars cleaning up their smokestack emissions. Meanwhile, however, the growth in automobile traffic has canceled this improvement.
More than 60 percent of the pollutants contributing to ozone are caused by cars. The auto industry says additional pollution equipment will cost more than $1,000 per vehicle, when independent studies show the expense of the equipment would be more like the cost of a set of hub caps. The oil companies are claiming that the proposed tailpipe standards would somehow require them to reformulate gasoline.
But under the federal clean air act the companies must reformulate their fuels anyway. Indeed Amoco is already
advertising new ''environmentally improved'' gas. More than 600,000 Maryland residents have lung disease and the state has the highest cancer death rate in the nation. Each year thousands of Maryland residents get sick from tailpipe emissions.
Obstructionist legislative tactics and exaggerated claims of economic ruin should not stall action to clear up our air.
Terry J. Harris
The writer chairs the Sierra Club's Baltimore Group and the Baltimore City League of Environmental Voters.