A citizen group sued the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday, saying it violated the Clean Air Act in February by approving an air-quality plan for Greater Baltimore based on "fudged" data.
The case, filed in 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., could set a precedent nationally over how the agency measures vehicle emissions.
Emissions levels are significant to transportation planners because new road projects will not qualify for federal money if pollution is too high.
The data, submitted by the Maryland Department of the Environment, likely overestimate how much motor vehicle pollution the region can accept and meet Clean Air goals by 2005, according to Thousand Friends of Maryland, which filed the suit.
Neither MDE nor EPA can rely on their estimates because a computer analysis required by federal law was not performed, according to the suit.
"By playing the numbers game in Baltimore, and by playing them in the past, we've ended up with a serious health crisis," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of Thousand Friends.
A 1996 study by the American Lung Association ranked Baltimore second only to Los Angeles in hospital admissions and emergency visits because of respiratory-related illness. A report two years ago placed Maryland seventh for unhealthy smog days among 26 states and Washington.
Ann Marie DeBiase, director of the air and radiation management administration at MDE, said yesterday that the environmental group is correct in saying that the "photochemical grid modeling" had not been done.
"We followed what we were asked to do by the EPA," she said. "I don't think it's up to me to be agreeing or disagreeing with the EPA."
EPA officials were unfamiliar with details of the complaint and declined to comment.
Among the $38 million in projects that depended on the EPA's recent approval are new roads for the 200-store Arundel Mills shopping mall, which is to open this fall as Maryland's largest new retail development.
State and regional planners realized in June that they were violating federal clean air rules. To measure prospective traffic pollution and gain approval for road projects, they had been relying on 1990 motor vehicle data.
The old data failed to reflect growing numbers of vehicles, particularly higher-polluting sport utility vehicles. When the planners ran new tests using 1996 data, they realized that vehicle emissions had escalated, pushing them out of compliance with federal standards.
Members of the regional Transportation Steering Committee, which draws up and approves transportation plans, at first decided to apply for funding using the misleading older data. Later, they reversed themselves.
Yesterday's lawsuit challenges the EPA's approval of a different, long-range plan to reduce emissions and meet clean air goals by 2005. The computer model would have tested the state's figures against factors such as climate and geography to reach more precise predictions, according to the citizen group.
"We suspect the computer modeling would show a bigger shortfall," said Rena Steinzor, director of the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic, legal counsel to Thousand Friends.
"Our basic concern is that the system stay very honest. We have until 2005 to meet our deadlines under the Clean Air Act. But the more roads we build, the more sprawl, the more cars on the roads, the harder it will be to get there."
Congress has extended the deadlines three times for 10 severe ozone pollution cities, including Baltimore, that are struggling to comply with the Clean Air Act deadlines. The original deadline for cleaning up the air was 1975. Since then, it has been moved repeatedly -- to 1982, 1987 and 2005.
"What we're trying to do is stop this endless pushing back of the Clean Air standards," said Schmidt-Perkins.