State leaders reject clean air options

ON THE BAY

Yield: Rain-borne fallout from air pollution is a significant factor in the Chesapeake's poor health.

April 01, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

"Government should not pick winners and losers, but let consumers and the marketplace choose automotive technologies."

THAT'S FROM THE Web site of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing Ford, General Motors, Toyota and other car builders.

And here's where that fine philosophy has gotten us, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article:

"The average fuel economy of new vehicles sold in the U.S. has been worsening since the late 1980s, the result of the increased popularity of SUVs and pickup trucks."

The big profit margins gained from relentlessly pushing such air-polluting gas guzzlers "do pay the bills," GM Chairman Rick Wagoner was quoted as saying.

States dedicated to cleaner air increasingly are deciding to bypass weak federal standards. California and seven East Coast states from Maine to New Jersey require that the most-fuel-efficient, least-polluting vehicles make up a certain percentage of sales.

But Maryland's lawmakers have rejected such legislation at least four times since the early 1990s, despite strong public support in polls for cleaner cars and cleaner air - and cleaner water. Rain-borne fallout from air pollution is a significant factor in the bay's poor health.

The latest victory for the auto lobby, supported wholeheartedly by Maryland's Department of Environment, came this month when a Senate committee voted 6-5 to kill the Clean Car Bill.

MDE spread its love for industry generously this session. It lobbied with energy companies to kill the so-called "Four Ps" bill. The legislation would have imposed tougher-than-federal standards on Maryland power plants in the emission of four pollutants - mercury, carbon dioxide, and oxides of sulfur and nitrogen.

To be sure, MDE is working actively on a regional and national basis for cleaner air, and it funds local projects to reduce air pollution from buses and other heavy-duty vehicles. The agency claims that in-state solutions to auto and power plant emissions aren't productive because so much of our air pollution blows in from out of state (up to 70 percent for some pollutants).

But that's a "copout," says Takoma Park resident Eric Schaeffer, formerly a top air quality administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He resigned a couple of years ago, frustrated by the Bush administration's evisceration of the Clean Air Act.

He founded the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit watchdog that provides savvy analyses of clean air progress nationwide.

Maryland, Schaeffer says, "is just not keeping up with other states" in its air quality efforts. "In New York, [Attorney General] Eliot Spitzer sued the power plants, and they settled and are headed for a major cleanup. New York didn't sit around and cry `out of state' about its air pollution."

Maryland has almost a split personality, he says. "There's widespread concern about Chesapeake Bay, and we've done some real creative things on water quality. But air quality here is much more ignored."

Indeed, had the Clean Car and Four Ps bills been about the Chesapeake Bay, would state Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, who represents Baltimore and who normally votes pro-environment, have flipped his vote at the last minute in favor of the auto lobby?

And would Charles County state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, who is leading a charge to protect public lands, have so vigorously opposed the Four Ps bill?

Environmental groups themselves need to do a better job on air quality, says Kim Coble, chief scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which supported both failed bills.

"We let industry and MDE hijack the argument, and it got cast in terms of economic costs instead of the overwhelming benefits to people's health and the environment," Coble said.

An example of Maryland's inattention to instate air pollution, Schaeffer says, is sulfur dioxide, a source of fine particles that lodge in the lungs. The EPA estimates this causes thousands of premature deaths each year.

The output of sulfur dioxides in Maryland - 282,000 tons a year - is about the same as 15 years ago, he said. During that time, it has declined by around 40 percent across several other Eastern states.

Both MDE and EPA will tell you their current strategies are reducing air pollution. The more pertinent questions, however, are how much, and by when? A larger question is do their efforts take into account the 1 million new people who will move into the bay region every decade - each of them driving more miles than ever, and consuming power at a growing rate per capita?

I have written before that MDE's performance on air quality is an example of just getting by, when what is needed is leadership. Certainly in this legislative session, neither the Ehrlich administration nor legislators have shown leadership on clean air.

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