Risky game of 'chicken' on air quality VEIP: Legislators imperil state by gambling that EPA will blink at noncompliance.

March 22, 1997

SOME MEMBERS of the General Assembly are playing a game of "chicken" to see if the federal government will blink on auto emissions testing. If they're wrong -- which they almost certainly are -- Maryland could lose plenty.

A faction in Annapolis wants to block the governor from implementing mandatory dynamometer testing of vehicles in June. For most Marylanders, the inspection, which lasts a few minutes and is good for two years, is no big deal.

Metropolitan motorists have been taking their cars for "tailpipe" check-ups for a decade. A different type of test was phased in two years ago to get a more precise reading by running a vehicle on a treadmill. Washington says the new test must replace the old one.

Some legislators, notably Baltimore County Delegates Martha S. Klima and John S. Arnick and Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., have exaggerated this into an epochal struggle over state's rights. People should not have to "hand over" their car to a technician at the treadmill, they contend, even though the same motorist might consider it a perk to use "valet parking" at a restaurant. Moreover, 43 percent of folks (and up to 77 percent at some stations) opt for the more exacting treadmill test over the tailpipe exam when offered a $2 coupon. To paraphrase Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty -- or two bucks off."

Opponents of the vehicle emissions inspection program, known as VEIP, believe "standing up for the little guy" will help them come election time. However, they may also have to explain to the little guy why a long-awaited road in his area won't get built after the Environmental Protection Agency withholds $98 million in highway money for non-compliance.

Opponents should also explain to the 600,000 Marylanders who suffer chronic lung disease why they think correcting Baltimore's severe air pollution should be "voluntary." The number of "bad ozone days," when those with breathing problems especially suffer, has been halved the past 10 years thanks to efforts to cut automobile and industrial pollutants.

The House of Delegates must not follow the lead of one of its committees or the Senate, both of which voted for a voluntary test. Two things to remember in the 15-year battle over emissions standards: Other states have caught up to or passed Maryland in adopting such tests. Also, the EPA won't blink as it has before: A consent decree it signed requires that tough emissions standards be enforced.

If Maryland balks, EPA bites and citizens suffer. Then, the air will really get thick as self-styled political heroes try to talk their way out of a legal challenge they cannot win.

Pub Date: 3/22/97

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