Coalition Seeks Clean-Car Measure To Clear the Air

Del. William A. Bronrott and Del. Jane Lawton (both D-Montgomery) say they will push for clean-car legislation when the General Assembly convenes.
Del. William A. Bronrott and Del. Jane Lawton (both D-Montgomery) say they will push for clean-car legislation when the General Assembly convenes. (Photos By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2006

The cancer risk from breathing polluted air in Maryland's largest jurisdictions far exceeds the federal government standard, environmental advocates said yesterday, urging lawmakers to join 11 other states in restricting tailpipe emissions when the General Assembly convenes next month.

A report released by Environment Maryland found the highest level of cancer-causing air toxins in the city of Baltimore, followed by Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The group based its study on data released this year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Brad Heavner, state director of the research center, an offshoot of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, called the level of air pollutants "just staggering."

"We know that this pollution comes predominantly from motor vehicles," he said at a news conference at Suburban Hospital's cancer outpatient center in Bethesda. "We also know that there is proven technology to reduce those emissions."

The study is the opening push by a coalition of environmentalists, health professionals and religious leaders who intend to make clean-car legislation its signature issue in the coming legislative session. Last year, the coalition was a driving force behind restrictions intended to curb pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Under the proposal, Maryland would follow California in setting stricter emission standards than those required by the federal government. By 2011, all new cars and trucks registered in the state would have to comply with the standards, and car dealers would have to sell a certain percentage of low-emission vehicles.

Jack Fitzgerald, chairman of the Washington Area New Car Dealers Association, said such requirements would mean higher prices and fewer choices for shoppers with little environmental benefit. He called the findings "scare tactics" and said the real differences are in the cleaner mix of fuel used in California and the possibility of regulating carbon dioxide.

"When you have bumper-to-bumper traffic, you're going to have more air pollution," said Fitzgerald, who owns Fitzgerald Auto Mall in White Flint. "This is really more about politics than anything else."

Fitzgerald said his group will urge the General Assembly to convene a commission of lawmakers and experts to recommend a comprehensive energy policy before moving ahead with a clean-car bill.

Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery), who will introduce legislation in the House of Delegates, said if automakers "balk at this proposal, please keep in mind that they used the same arguments and same delay tactics over auto safety standards."

A similar bill stalled in committee in the Senate two years ago in the face of opposition from car dealers and manufacturers. But proponents said momentum is on their side after neighboring Pennsylvania joined New Jersey, New York and New England states in adopting the tougher standards.

Environmental advocates said changing the rules would cut emissions by 57 to 79 percent within two decades. The average statewide cancer risk in Maryland was 40 times higher than the federal government standard established by the Clean Air Act.

That is less than the national average, which is 41.5 times higher, and the District's, at 53.5, but greater than the level in Virginia, at 32 times higher. Rates in Arlington and Fairfax counties are comparable to those in Washington's Maryland suburbs.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company