State to make business help in smog effort Firms must plan ways to reduce commuter pollution

June 23, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

People who drive alone to work are the target of a complex proposal that could dramatically change the commuting habits of hundreds of thousands of people who work in Baltimore and six surrounding counties.

Over the protests of some of the region's largest employers, the Maryland Department of the Environment plans to release Friday the regulations for Employee Commute Options, or ECO.

The proposed rules direct employers to get a substantial number of their workers to start sharing rides, taking mass transit, walking or using some other nonpolluting alternative to commute by November 1996.

Mandated by the federal Clean Air Act, the program aims to reduce smog. With the sixth worst ground-level ozone pollution in the country, Baltimore is one of 10 jurisdictions nationwide that must develop a commuter options program.

A private business that fails to do so could face stiff penalties: fines of

up to $50,000 a day in the worst cases. In all, about 1,700 employers and an estimated 600,000 workers will be covered.

The federal government actually wanted the regulations in hand by last November, but the program proved so repugnant to some business leaders that state officials wrote and then tore up at least five versions before issuing a first draft.

"I wouldn't expect this to be a popular program," said Daniel J. Meszler, the department's chief of motor vehicle pollution controls, who describes some of the rules as "fuzzy."

"It doesn't regulate technology, it regulates behavior. That's tougher to swallow."

The price tag also may be high: as much as $60 million annually if a similar, 5-year-old program in California is any indicator.

Even then, there are questions about whether Maryland can reach its goal, which is more than twice as ambitious as California's achievement so far.

"This is an expensive program and I can't pretend otherwise," said Constance H. Ruth, an air pollution specialist with the EPA's emissions laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich. "There are also benefits to be gained, and people don't have to suffer."

At issue are volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, invisible gases that spew from the exhausts of cars to form ozone in the hot sunlight.

Experts say ozone in the upper atmosphere is good, protecting us from ultraviolet rays. But ground-level ozone is harmful to LTC human health, acting as an irritant to the lungs. People with respiratory diseases, children and the elderly are most at risk.

Millions at stake

If Maryland doesn't develop a program the state would lose hundreds of millions in federal highway dollars and the EPA would impose severe and possibly economically disastrous restrictions on industrial emissions. The regulations don't affect the Washington suburbs as originally planned because air pollution in that part of the state is not as severe.

Maryland officials say they've softened the regulations since they were first touted to business groups last year, adding loopholes such as the right to average results among work-sites and allowing companies to trade pollution credits. Nor do employers have to factor mileage, lessening calculations substantially.

However, those changes have not dissuaded critics who fear the regulations will be disastrous to the region's economy.

Not only will they be costly, said Robert G. Smith, a lawyer representing such companies as Bethlehem Steel Corp., Carr-Lowery Glass Co. and Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc., but their environmental benefits will be negligible.

"Baltimore area business are going to be put at a tremendous competitive disadvantage," said Mr.Smith, of Venable, Baetjer and Howard. "They go substantially beyond and are substantially more onerous than the Clean Air Act requires."

The paperwork can be intimidating. A designated "transportation coordinator" in each company must survey employees, fill out compliance reports and revise them periodically.

To change employees' commuting habits, firms are encouraged to promote mass transit, give car pools preferential parking, organize van pools, and offer flexible hours or compressed work weeks. They also may have to dig into their pockets and subsidize transit fares or guarantee a ride home for car poolers in emergencies.

Still not meeting the goal? Companies can buy credits earned by other businesses, but only after leaping some hurdles. They must have already offered "minimum" incentives to employees, factored in mileage, and had the records independently audited. The credit also would be discounted by 10 percent.

Firms that want to average the results between work sites face similar obstacles. With 1,700 plans to review and no more than five people to handle the program, the department insists on audits, but admits enforcement will be spotty at best.

"Obviously, we can't review each and every plan in detail," said Mr. Meszler. "However we review them, it's going to be hard to be objective. What's the result of an employer starting to charge $10 for parking space that used to be free?"

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