Maryland studying emissions, reducing school bus pollution under ICC agreement

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 10:53 PM

Maryland highway officials are spending $2 million to monitor air quality near the Capital Beltway and reduce diesel air pollution from Montgomery County school buses, requirements of a legal agreement in a court battle over the Intercounty Connector.

As the first segment of the 18.8-mile toll highway nears completion, the Maryland State Highway Administration is carrying out a 2008 settlement negotiated with the Environmental Defense Fund. The group lost a 2007 federal lawsuit aimed at stopping the ICC's construction on environmental grounds.

The group agreed to drop its appeal of the ruling in exchange for the state spending $1 million to install exhaust filters on 70 diesel school buses, along with $1 million to collect three years of data from a new air-quality monitor near the Beltway and Route 214 in Prince George's County. The results could determine how much people near highways are exposed to unhealthy particles and droplets of chemicals in vehicle emissions.

The $2 million is part of the ICC's $2.56 billion construction budget, an ICC official said. The six-lane highway will connect the Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County with the Interstate 95 corridor in Laurel, in northwestern Prince George's County.

Bob Yuhnke, a Colorado lawyer who represented the Environmental Defense Fund in its lawsuit, said the bus filters will protect schoolchildren and passing motorists from one of the most prevalent sources of diesel exhaust. And the Beltway air monitor, he said, so far has shown what he was unable to prove in court: that unhealthy particles found in vehicle emissions are more prevalent near a highway than farther away.

That might sound like a logical assumption, Yuhnke said, but the failed lawsuit showed that highway opponents need more scientific evidence for legal proof.

"This wasn't just a total loss," Yuhnke said of the unsuccessful lawsuit. "We're filling a data gap that the government agencies have refused to fill."

The findings will be closely watched by residents such as Connie McKenna, who said her Derwood home is 400 feet from the ICC. She said she's worried about the highway's impact on her 16-year-old son, who had severe asthma when he was younger, and on several neighbors with asthma, including one who sometimes relies on an oxygen tank.

"Everyone knows tailpipe emissions make you sick," said McKenna, whose Shady Grove Woods Homeowners Association lost a separate lawsuit aimed at stopping the highway. "You wouldn't ask your child to stand behind your car as it's idling, would you? It's common sense."

The pollution particles being measured - each of which is one-thirtieth the width of a human hair - can travel deep into lungs and bloodstreams, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Studies have linked the particles to breathing problems, aggravated asthma, irregular heartbeats and premature death in people with heart or lung disease, according to the EPA.

When the ICC opens, beginning in stages this spring, motorists will drive past Drew Elementary School's playing fields in Silver Spring and Magruder High School in Rockville. The highway also passes close to the Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring and just beyond the back fences - and, in some cases, through the back yards - of hundreds of homes between Gaithersburg and Laurel.

Though U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. rejected the Environmental Defense Fund lawsuit in late 2007, he criticized the state's use of an air-quality monitor 11/2 miles from the ICC's path to determine that vehicle emissions from the road would not violate federal pollution standards. Williams wrote that he had "some reservations" about that monitor's accuracy but said its placement abided by federal rules requiring a "nearby monitor" to measure such pollution.

Rob Shreeve, the highway administration's environmental manager on the ICC construction, said it's too soon to draw any conclusions from the Beltway monitor. He said the final results could have ramifications far beyond the new highway.

"Roads go by schools, residences, businesses - we all spend most of our days near some road or another," Shreeve said. "It's a much bigger issue than one spot on the map."

Yuhnke said the first year of results from the Beltway monitor, which is adjacent to homes, has shown that the average daily level of pollution particles is 18 percent higher than levels recorded about 11/2 miles away in Beltsville. Even more striking, he said, was that the average daily Beltway levels were almost twice as high as those recorded by a monitor at the McMillan Reservoir, off North Capitol Street in Northwest Washington. The average daily level near the Beltway was below the federal limit, he said.

Yuhnke said he hopes that the Beltway monitor's results will persuade the EPA to direct states to monitor fine-particle levels near all highways. If such levels were found to exceed federal limits, he said, more stringent emissions controls could be required.

Todd Watkins, the transportation director for Montgomery County public schools, said pollution filters on buses can have a significant impact in a large county such as Montgomery, where 1,270 school buses log a total of 100,000 miles - about four trips around the equator - each school day.

Watkins said the filters, which cost $15,000 each, trap about 95 percent of a bus's pollution. Since newer buses arrived with filters built in and some older buses have been retrofitted, he said, about 60 percent of Montgomery's fleet now has the filters.

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