Whose Air Is It?

June 17, 1993

Residents of Baltimore City and poorer suburbs may joke about the rarefied air of affluent Howard County, but Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker would like to make an issue of it.

Mr. Ecker complained to Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski that Howard County shouldn't have been placed in the Baltimore metropolitan region under the federal Clean Air Act standards. He contended that Howard should be lumped instead with Washington, where a lack of heavy industry has contributed to better air quality. He argued that Howard will have an unfair advantage competing with Montgomery and Prince George's counties for business if it must align with the Baltimore region and do more to clean up the air.

True to form, Ms. Mikulski -- who has made a career of beating up on the bureaucracy because it's an easy mark -- egged on Mr. Ecker's cause. "They want to compare apples with apples and not oranges," she said of Howard.

Well, everyone knows what an apple looks like and from where it came. But distinguishing whose air belongs to whom isn't so simple. While general weather patterns move eastward, from Howard to Baltimore, the argument could also be made that Howard is contributing to Baltimore's severe air quality problems -- sixth worst smog in the U.S.

Howard County has the most narcissistic driving patterns around, with the greatest share of commuters driving alone and the largest percentage of Maryland households with three vehicles. About 70 percent of Howard's work force commutes out of the county, half of them to jobs elsewhere in the Baltimore region. If Howard must impose stiffer requirements to help clean the air, it is because of its own driving patterns.

Mr. Ecker shouldn't fear, though. Maryland Secretary of the Environment Robert Perciasepe says he will not to put one metropolitan area at a disadvantage over the other in implementing the Clean Air Act over the next decade. He says that businesses in the D.C. area will have to do as much as those in the Baltimore area. Howard would also probably need state and federal approval to defect to D.C., which it isn't likely to get.

It is ironic that Mr. Ecker, who has been out front on the need for the Baltimore area to find a regional solution to solid waste disposal, is willing to run and hide on air pollution. Mr. Ecker has never struck us as a politician who spins with the wind, but on this issue, he seems to be blowing in the direction of crass expediency.

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