Lawsuit vowed to force reductions in area smog EPA hasn't enforced Clean Air Act, says environmental group

March 28, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

A Washington-based environmental group has threatened to go to court to force smog reductions in the Baltimore area, where controversy over motor vehicle emissions tests has slowed efforts to improve summer air quality.

The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, saying the smog cleanup nationwide has stalled, notified the Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday that it would sue the federal agency in 60 days for failing to enforce the federal Clean Air Act in the Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia metropolitan areas.

A spokesman in the EPA's mid-Atlantic regional office in Philadelphia refused to comment yesterday, saying officials need more time to review the Sierra Club letter.

Under federal law, states with smoggy cities were supposed to submit plans 2 1/2 years ago for reducing emissions 15 percent by November this year. The EPA had until February 1995 to approve the states' plans or impose federal pollution-control measures to meet the goal.

The cornerstone of Maryland's smog-reduction plan for the Baltimore and Washington areas -- more stringent vehicle emissions inspections -- has been delayed for at least two years by opposition from motorists and legislators.

Last year, Gov. Parris N. Glendening postponed the start of the new emissions tests in Maryland after a public outcry over plans to test vehicles on a treadmill-like device called a dynamometer. The governor yielded early this year to legislative pressure to delay the tests for a year, citing continuing problems with some of the state's 19 testing stations.

Both houses of the General Assembly have approved similar bills postponing the new emissions tests for a year.

"There have been decades of delay here," said Howard I. Fox, managing attorney in the Sierra Club fund's Washington office. Federal and state officials "have always said, 'Eventually we're going to clean up the air.' Well, tomorrow is no longer good enough."

In the Baltimore case, the legal defense fund says it represents the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, a West Baltimore community group called Communities Organized to Improve Life, and three local residents.

Congress first declared war on urban smog when it passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, giving states until 1975 to reduce unhealthful levels of ozone pollution in the air. After years of missed deadlines, Congress overhauled the law in 1990, setting a new timetable.

In the past two years, many states have balked at launching controversial dynamometer emissions tests sought by the EPA, and Congress ordered the agency last year to give states 18 months to come up with alternatives.

Merrylin Zaw-Mon, air management director for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said dynamometer testing would account for nearly a quarter of the smog reduction needed in the Baltimore area. State officials considered requiring other pollution controls when the tests were delayed but did nothing because the other options were more costly and were opposed by the affected industries, she said.

The EPA acted correctly in overlooking states' failure to meet the smog-control deadlines, Ms. Zaw-Mon said, because imposing federal sanctions such as withholding highway funds or barring development would only have aggravated a simmering revolt in some states against the stringent requirements of the Clean Air Act.

Environmental activists, emboldened by the weakening of anti-environmental sentiment among congressional Republicans, contend that states and the EPA are violating the 1990 Clean Air Act by not proceeding with measures to reduce smog-forming emissions.

"I think that the political tide has turned," said Jayne Mardock, national coordinator for the Clean Air Network, a coalition of environmental, health and citizen groups. She predicted more lawsuits would be filed nationwide in reaction to what activists considered "backsliding" by state and federal officials on curbing air pollution.

"The bottom line is people's health is not being protected," said Larry Bohlen, conservation chairman for the Maryland Sierra Club. "And of course, the Chesapeake Bay is being more polluted."

Ozone, the chief ingredient in smog, is an invisible gas that can cause coughing and wheezing. It can affect healthy adults and children as well as those who have asthma or other chronic lung problems.

It forms when hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides from motor vehicles, power plants and a variety of other sources combine in the air on hot sunny days.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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