For Mary Bontempo, O'Dette McDonald and Sister Katherine Nueslein, clean air is a cause worth fighting for.
They hardly seem the combative type. One is a nun, one an employee of a home health care company and one a community outreach worker for a church.
Yet the Baltimore women are behind a federal lawsuit that could require owners of all motor vehicles in Maryland to submit them to a controversial treadmill-like device, called a dynamometer. The intention is to improve air quality by reducing auto emissions.
They seem unfazed that their role in imposing the "dreaded dynamometer," as a recent newspaper headline characterized it, may make them pariahs to some Marylanders.
"Change is painful, but this is change for the better," says Bontempo, a community outreach worker with St. Benedict's Church at 2612 Wilkens Ave. She led the fight in her southwest Baltimore neighborhood to clean up a dirty, noisy auto scrap yard.
Dynamometer testing was supposed to be required in Maryland two years ago, but public furor over the federal mandate prompted Gov. Parris N. Glendening to repeatedly postpone it. Though the test is now set to be required starting in June, the governor has indicated he's unsure whether the state may delay again.
The uit was filed in Washington last June by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund on behalf of McDonald, Sister Katherine, a civic group of which Bontempo was a leader and two environmental groups: the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth.
It accuses the Environmental Protection Agency of violating federal law by letting Maryland, four other mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia drag their feet in reducing emissions that cause summer smog.
Last month, EPA tentatively agreed to settle. If approved by the court, EPA would have until May to get the states to submit plans for reducing ozone, the chief component in smog, by 15 percent. If the deadline is not met, the agency would be required to impose federal pollution-reduction measures on the recalcitrant states by the end of next year.
In Maryland, officials say, reducing smog to comply with the federal Clean Air Act will require dynamometer tests for more than a million vehicles a year in 13 counties and Baltimore, where ozone in the air periodically reaches unhealthful levels.
Auto emissions are a major source of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, which combine under sunlight to form ozone.
The dynamometer tests, more rigorous than tailpipe testing performed in Maryland for the past decade, have been optional as officials grappled with public resistance and operational problems at the state's 19 emissions inspection stations. Some fear the treadmills will damage their vehicles while others object to letting a relatively low-paid technician drive them.
Bontempo said she volunteered her 1990 Toyota Tercel for the dynamometer test, which it passed without problems.
"I was afraid of it, too, before I put my car on the treadmill," she said. "But nothing happened, and I passed the test with an older car. The bigger fear is not being able to breathe."
McDonald, a reimbursement specialist with a downtown home health care company, said her late-model car has not yet been summoned for testing. She commutes to work by Metro from her home in Baltimore County.
Sister Katherine, 63, who works with developmentally disabled adults at St. Peter the Apostle Church on South Poppleton Street, doesn't even own a car. She drives an aging Toyota station wagon that belongs to her order, the Sisters of Mercy. She's never taken the car for a dynamometer test, she said, because she did not know there were different emissions inspections available.
"I'm not very bright on these things," she said. "Whatever is required, we do it."
A native of Savannah, Ga., who has lived here since 1978, Sister Katherine said she put her name on the lawsuit at the behest of Bontempo, with whom she has worked in community activities. But Sister Katherine said she is concerned about air quality in Baltimore and its impact on people in her parish.
"We have a group that walks for wellness," she said. "We usually walk in the afternoon," she added, but the group avoids Martin Luther King Boulevard because exhaust from rush-hour traffic "takes your breath away."
McDonald, 33, has a personal stake in clean air. She has asthma, and her recurring breathing problems have forced her to give up most of the sports she enjoyed before moving here a couple of years ago from North Carolina. Her asthma is so severe that she had to be hospitalized last winter.
"Imagine holding your breath and never being able to catch it, without either receiving some kind of medication or assistance," she said. That's what an asthma attack feels like, she explained, and air pollution can trigger or worsen the condition.
"During summer, I didn't go outside," she said. "I just stayed inside with air conditioning."
"For those of us who have respiratory problems, it's a major problem," she said.