EPA to miss deadline on emissions rules

November 10, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Up in the air over smog, the Environmental Protection Agency will miss a key deadline today for deciding how much cleaner the cars and light trucks sold in Maryland, the District of Columbia and 11 other East Coast states must be.

The agency's stall, prompted by a desire to avoid a head-on collision with the auto industry, has drawn threats of legal action from environmental groups and two states.

The EPA was supposed to rule today whether the group of smog-plagued Northeast and Middle Atlantic states can adopt California's auto emission standards, which are tougher than federal law requires.

The Ozone Transport Commission, representing the group of states, petitioned the EPA in February to require that California-style low-emission vehicles be sold in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic region beginning in 1998.

The petition set off a fierce lobbying and public relations battle, pitting the auto industry against electric and gas utilities, environmentalists and backers of cars and trucks powered by batteries or natural gas.

At the heart of the struggle is whether auto makers should be required to produce progressively cleaner cars and trucks, especially so-called "zero emission vehicles" that would run on batteries. The auto industry contends that it can't build an electric car the public will buy, but state officials and utilities insist that zero-polluting technology is both feasible and necessary to solve the East Coast's stubborn smog problems.

The EPA has tried to broker a compromise that would avoid litigation -- which might delay any action for years -- while getting a somewhat cleaner car produced for the entire country, not just for the East Coast.

The agency has taken seemingly conflicting positions, at one point signaling its willingness to grant the states' petition. But the EPA also has essentially endorsed an auto industry proposal to sell nationwide the same low-emission car it will be selling in California, minus any of the super-clean and "zero-emission" cars that will be required on the West Coast.

The East Coast states so far have rejected the so-called %J "49-state" car, arguing that the compromise will not reduce pollution enough in smoggy cities such as Baltimore, New York and Boston. They insist that a new generation of cars will be needed, ones using more advanced pollution controls or powered by batteries or natural gas.

The Baltimore area has the sixth-worst ozone problem in the country, according to the EPA, and the Washington area the 10th worst. Ozone, the chief component in smog, is formed when hydrocarbons from fuel vapors and nitrogen oxides -- from auto exhaust and power plant emissions -- combine in the atmosphere. Ozone can cause breathing difficulties.

Despite weeks of private and public negotiations, neither the auto industry and its allies nor the states and their supporters show any signs of yielding.

"There's no deal in the works," said Jaime Steve with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The parties are not moving at all."

"I'm still optimistic," said David A. C. Carroll, Maryland's environment secretary, who has been involved in the states' negotiations with the EPA and the auto industry. But he acknowledged that agreement remains elusive on whether the industry would be required to produce any ultra-clean cars and trucks for the East.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has until today to rule on the states' petition, or to suggest another way to reduce pollution. But Mary Nichols, the agency's assistant administrator for air and radiation, said late last week that her staff needs at least a couple more weeks to review and respond to a flood of letters and documents from the auto industry and others.

Privately, she told some state officials that a decision would be made by mid-December.

Her comments about needing more time drew a warning from the American Lung Association that it would take the agency to court. The association, two other environmental groups and the states of Massachusetts and New York served the EPA with legal notice last month that they intend to sue if the federal government misses the deadline.

State officials say they need the EPA to decide promptly because they face legal deadlines of their own. States must submit plans to the EPA by Tuesday on how they plan to eliminate harmful levels of ozone in their cities. Failure to comply could cost states their federal highway funds -- $300 million a year, in Maryland's case.

Massachusetts and New York already have adopted California's tailpipe pollution standards, including a requirement that 2 percent of the cars sold by 1998 be "zero-emission vehicles."

The auto industry has filed suit seeking to block the two states' actions. The states have prevailed so far, but the automakers are expected to take the EPA to court as well if it approves the East Coast states' petition.

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