Cleaning the air or blowing smoke?

July 20, 1992

Based on the latest maneuver on enforcing the Clean Air Act, environmentalists must think George Bush is moving two steps forward, one step back. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued new rules requiring more stringent testing of auto emissions -- letting industries off the hook.

This plan will bring 55 urban areas into the national auto-emissions test program, at the same time forcing regions with existing programs to upgrade their standards.

In Maryland, the state must install new, $100,000 treadmills with computer-controlled diagnostic gear in place of existing emissions test equipment in the Baltimore and suburban Washington regions. Washington, Frederick, Cecil, Queen Anne's, Calvert and Charles counties, which had no testing programs, will now be brought into the program as well.

The new program, which the state hopes to have in place by 1995, will add 400,000 vehicles to Maryland's testing program. This more sensitive test apparatus, putting vehicles through the paces of various driving conditions, will pick up problems the current gear misses, especially in older cars.

And since older cars and trucks pump out most of the pollution, significant cuts are likely in oxides of sulfur and nitrogen and the aromatic compounds that keep Baltimore and Washington's air at the top of the ozone non-attainment charts. That's good news, particularly for the Chesapeake Bay, whose fragile ecosystem is badly degraded by acid rain.

What's not so good is the White House's simultaneous decision to relax standards for industrial emissions. Some 34,000 manufacturing, refining and chemical plants are now to be allowed to push millions of extra pounds of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds into the air that auto drivers are trying to clean up.

William Rosenberg, a high EPA aide, told reporters "there was an effort to balance economic concerns and the environmental progress." Manufacturers will be allowed to blow more pollutants into the air just by asking a state's permission, with no requirement for public notice.

One reason that new testing will cost drivers more is the cost of the expensive new test gear. Drivers also will have to spend more on repairs, since this equipment can pick up more problems. Drivers of older cars, vastly more likely to fail the tests, may even have to scrap their only means of transportation.

It is certainly right to require more of drivers, for autos have eluded tighter standards for years. But using "competitiveness" language to let industrial polluters off won't wash. Industrial cost-cutting cannot come at the expense of dumping new pollutants into an environment everyone depends on.

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