A driving force of bay pollution

ON THE BAY

Vehicles: Parris Glendening, Kurt Schmoke and other local leaders should consider the negative impact their SUVs have on the environment.

July 09, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

WOULD THE governor of Maryland and the mayor of Baltimore pass a citizenship test? Seems a no-brainer. Parris Glendening and Kurt Schmoke are bright and obviously steeped in the workings, privileges and duties of democracy.

But how are they doing as citizens of the planet, or in aspiring to full citizenship of the Chesapeake Bay?

Based on Larry Carson's reporting ("Politicians go for spin in gas-guzzling SUVs," July 1), I'd say these leaders, with their county executive brethren, are more alien than citizen when it comes to the natural environment to which they pledge allegiance.

Consider: Air pollution from vehicles, deposited on the bay and washed by rain from its watershed, is a significant source of the Chesapeake's ills.

It is directly linked to mammoth losses of habitat for fish, crabs and waterfowl. "Roadkill," reads a Chesapeake Bay Foundation poster showing a squashed rockfish with tire tracks on it, to make the connection between cars and water quality.

Baltimore also has some of the nation's worst smog, again because of automobiles. The bad summer air kills people as well as rockfish.

Glendening's choice of vehicles is especially ironic. He is one of the best environmental executives we've had, the same man who fought the legislature tooth and nail to decrease pollution from automobiles.

Yet you almost could not find a worse personal choice for the environment than the governor and the mayor have made, with Dutch Ruppersberger in Baltimore County and Harford County's executive, James Harkins.

The first three have chosen Lincoln Navigators or their twins, Ford Expeditions, as official vehicles, while Harkins uses a Chevrolet Tahoe.

To see how bad these are, I consulted the "Green Guide to Cars and Trucks," published by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

You can order the guides for about $9 from their Web site (www.aceee.org/greenercars). They also publish a nice guide to home energy savings, ranking appliances for energy efficiency. (Remember, most "clean" electric power comes from burning polluting oil or coal).

The green guide gives the Navigator/Expedition a score of 9-10, and the Tahoe 8-10, on a scale of 100 as totally green.

The lowest scores for any vehicle ranked are 7-8 (Dodge Ram pickup, Ford Club Wagon). The electric vehicles available in California are tops at 57 (they have zero tailpipe emissions, but get their electricity from power plants that have emissions).

No car can achieve 100, since the score includes the pollution produced by making the materials that go into a vehicle.

I don't expect a busy chief executive, who may use his vehicle as his office, to drive a Chevrolet Metro or Honda Civic, which have green rankings of 38 and 33, and are among the greenest gas-powered vehicles.

But there are good, big alternatives that are two to three times as green as the vehicles the executives have chosen: Toyota Avalon (score of 25), Dodge Intrepid and Chrysler Concorde (23), Buick LeSabre (22), a Ford Crown Victoria powered with natural gas (29).

Among minivans, Dodge and Plymouth have the greenest models with scores of 18-20. The scores combine tailpipe emissions and miles per gallon. Impacts from acid rain to global warming are explained in the ACEEE guide.

I had to laugh when Harkins told The Sun he needed the most polluting vehicle he could find because when it snows, "I've got to respond." (They don't want you, Harkins, they want a snowplow; but you could follow the plow in your official Chevy Metro).

Glendening and Schmoke, in comments to The Sun, kissed off concerns about their choices. (He likes it, the governor's spokesman said; and the mayor doesn't find bad mileage and air pollution a "compelling enough" reason to clean up his act.)

It would be silly to define anyone's environmental commitment solely in terms of the cars they drive. A committed environmentalist I know owns a monster SUV -- green score 9-12. It has to do with the environmentalist's spouse, and it's simply not negotiable.

With all such caveats in mind, I do think citizens in the bay watershed need to become better citizens of the watershed.

I'd like to see someone publish a "Citizens' Guide to Living in the Bay Watershed," outlining the bay's problems and how you affect each of them. Realtors could hand it out with every home sale.

It might mention how we need to multiply our "insignificant" individual choices by 15 million, the population of the watershed -- or by 18 million, the population we'll reach in a couple of decades.

Try it: "I threw 15 million Styrofoam cups in the river -- on my lunch hour." (Conversely, "I planted 18 million trees -- on my lunch hour.")

Are millions of Ford Expeditions pumping fumes into the recent heat wave attractive to Schmoke and Glendening? That's what they endorse.

Citizenship is an apt way to think about this. We understand that good citizenship, as traditionally defined, goes beyond obeying the law and voting, to things like helping our communities.

Likewise, just obeying environmental laws will not give us the bay we want back.

I don't mean we can ignore regulations. Loopholes that let SUVs pollute more than identical car engines, increasing profits by a couple of hundred bucks, tell you what motivates carmakers.

Cars, which once meant freedom, mean the opposite, as anyone knows who commutes on the Beltway or breathes the metropolitan July air.

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