Ozone among us

April 19, 2004

IT COMES as no surprise to Marylanders with asthma or other breathing ailments that much of the state is frequently blanketed with harmful smog.

Thanks to new labels and testing methods applied by the Environmental Protection Agency, ozone pollution in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas previously rated "severe" is now deemed "moderate."

The upgrade may reflect a modest improvement, but no one can breathe easier until far more aggressive steps are taken to clear the air.

Ozone and other air contaminants that are destroying the health of thousands of Marylanders, especially the most vulnerable, must be battled on many fronts. There's lots more to do.

Granted, Maryland and most of its neighbors along the Eastern Seaboard are the downwind victims of smokestacks elsewhere in the nation. It galls state officials that EPA's new rules let some of these polluters off the hook because their ozone has blown away and their air tests clean.

EPA earlier eased requirements for installing modern pollution controls on old coal-fired power plants and oil refineries, undercutting a lawsuit filed by Maryland and other East Coast states. A new federal rule addressing interstate pollution is too slow in coming.

While it is pressing for more effective federal action, though, Maryland has much more to do at home. State officials say they've done all they can, but that's a cop-out.

It's obvious from the way ozone tracks residential as well as industrial development that much of the bad air is locally produced. Washington County showed up on the ozone polluted list for the first time this year, no doubt because of the burgeoning growth of Hagerstown.

Tighter controls on utilities and other industrial sources would surely help in reversing the trend. But legislation that would have imposed such controls was defeated this year by the General Assembly.

Much progress also might be achieved if Maryland drivers could be enticed into smaller, cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars. Yet the state is allowing a tax credit for the purchase of part-electric hybrid vehicles to expire.

Getting people out of their cars altogether and into mass transit would help even more, but Maryland's current passion is for building more roads.

Perhaps the ill wind will have blown in some good if it prompts Marylanders to rethink this approach before we all choke on it.

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