EPA proposes tough rules for its latest target: lawn mowers

May 05, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration launched an assault yesterday on a new public enemy: the lawn mower.

The Environmental Protection Agency gets a headache at the thought of those deafening grass-cutting machines belching thick blue smoke. It wants lawn equipment to start meeting tough new standards by the time manufacturers release their 1996 models.

All makers of gasoline-powered lawn mowers, garden tractors, chainsaws and weed-whackers would be required to reduce exhaust significantly by 2003 under proposed rules, which could become law by the end of the year. The EPA's proposed rules first must be published in the Federal Register, after which the agency will take public comments.

"After all the years we've been cleaning up the automobiles, lawn machines are one of the last totally unregulated pollution sources," said EPA Assistant Administrator Mary Nichols at a rainy news conference that featured a large display of environmentally friendly garden equipment.

After her comments, Ms. Nichols cranked up a new, low-polluting lawn mower, pushing it in a circle in the shadow of the Washington Monument before an audience of camera crews slogging through the wetgrass.

Representatives from the garden tool industry -- some of whom were on hand with their products yesterday -- worked with EPA to write the standards, as did consumer and environmental groups.

Drafted in response to congressional amendments to the 1990 Clean Air Act, the new controls aim to curb little-publicized air pollution threats created by the nation's 89 million pieces of lawn equipment. While the machines may seem benign, the EPA contends that they produce 10 percent of all air pollution.

EPA statistics show that operating a lawn mower for one hour creates as much pollution as an 11 1/2 -hour car ride.

States such as Maryland, where the smog in the Baltimore area is the sixth worst among urban areas in the country, are counting on EPA actions such as this one to help clear the region's air.

By the time the machines are retooled to meet the new standards -- mainly by tinkering with the machine's air and fuel mixture -- the EPA estimates that the cost to consumers will be an extra $5.

But that figure was met with a somewhat clipped response by several lawn product manufacturers attending the EPA news conference yesterday.

"If you look at this historically, the EPA cost estimates always are conservative," said George Gatecliff, chief research engineer for Tecumseh Products Co., which manufactures lawn mower engines.

The nation's top manufacturer of lawn mower motors, Briggs & Stratton Corp., said it is already taking a financial hit by trying to rid its line of dirty motors.

"It's taken a tremendous amount of human and capital resources to make the changes so far," said Robert B. Carlson, who works on the company's environmental products.

The EPA contends that the number of dirty models will disappear through attrition by the end of the century, noting that most people replace their lawn mowers every seven years.

The EPA expects the proposed regulations to cause a 32-percent reduction in hydrocarbons and a 14-percent cut in carbon monoxide within the decade.

Hydrocarbons produce ground-level ozone, or smog, which can pose environmental threats and cause respiratory and neurological problems.

By 1996, the EPA may propose even tougher guidelines -- so that a standard lawn mower may have to be equipped with modern features such as fuel-injection systems and four-stroke overhead valves.

While the EPA trots out new technology, other companies say the best solution is the mower that time forgot: the "reel" machine, powered by manpower alone.

The push-mower's promoters take a chilling sales tack. Quoting federal statistics, they say 55,000 people are treated in emergency rooms each year for injuries involving power mowers. The manual variety does without those dangerous, whirling blades.

The EPA argues that the emissions war won't be won with old-fashioned solutions, but with new standards and modern technology.

And it doesn't look like the regulatory fever will subside any time soon.

Researchers at agency labs are busy seeking solutions to another emissions problem: go-kart pollution.

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