Pressed by a lawsuit by environmentalists, the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday prodded some of the nation's most heavily polluted metropolitan areas, including Washington and Baltimore, to submit tougher and more complete plans to reduce urban smog.
Of the 10 major metropolitan areas that must complete detailed plans for reducing smog under the 1990 Clean Air Act, only one--Springfield, Mass.--has fully met EPA's requirements, said EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner in announcing the results of her agency's review of the pollution reduction plans.
However, Browner said all the other areas have made substantial progress and that sanctions under the act are unlikely if states make good-faith efforts to comply. "We are confident that working with the states and cities we can finalize flexible, common-sense approaches to bring cleaner, healthier air," she said.
"We are not rejecting anybody's proposal," Browner added. "What we are saying is our analysis shows they've done a lot but there is still more we need to do. . . . We are simply saying they are going to need additional measures."
Browner announced the results of the agency review as lawyers for the EPA and a half-dozen environmental groups filed a proposed settlement of a lawsuit brought several weeks ago. The suit alleged that the EPA had violated the Clean Air Act requirement that it write its own air pollution plans for states that failed to provide their own by a 1994 deadline. In the proposed settlement, the EPA agrees to write its own plans if adequate state plans are not approved within a year.
"These plans were due in 1994," said Vickie Patton, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, a plaintiff in the case. "We think this lawsuit is important in continuing to hold EPA and the states accountable for expeditious progress so we don't continue to see the delay in the future that we've seen in the past."
While accusing both the EPA and the states of foot-dragging, Patton acknowledged that government regulators faced a task "full of political land mines" in convincing state and local officials to take measures stringent enough to meet pollution targets.
Under the Clean Air Act, states are given broad discretion in choosing measures to reduce air pollution from stationary sources such as industrial plants and from motor vehicles. But in many places, meeting pollution standards means that local officials must make tough and often unpopular decisions about controlling the growth of automobile traffic and suburban sprawl.
In addition to Baltimore and Washington, the metropolitan areas cited by EPA are Philadelphia, New York, Milwaukee, Houston, Hartford, Chicago and Atlanta. California cities with significant air pollution standards are regulated under separate provisions of the Clean Air Act and face different deadlines.
Of the nine metropolitan areas whose plans did not satisfy the EPA, four--including Washington--have set targets acceptable to the agency but have not met a requirement to submit a final "transportation emissions budget" that accounts for future road construction plans and additional traffic. The other five fell short of EPA's targets for reducing nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, both major constituents of smog, which can cause or aggravate a range of serious respiratory problems, including asthma.
Air quality officials for the Washington and Baltimore areas said yesterday they were well on the way to meeting EPA's objections, and anticipated their regions would meet federal smog standards by 2005.
Both Baltimore's and Washington's air quality plans depend heavily on measures already in place. They include lower-polluting automobiles, vapor-trapping nozzles at gasoline stations, less toxic gasoline and tougher pollution controls on factories and dry cleaners. The plans also rely on anticipated pollution reductions from power plants and other sources in the Midwest, which send smog-forming chemicals into East Coast states.
Despite talk several years ago of banning or limiting power boats, lawn mowers or even commuting by car, those dramatic measures were never implemented.
Air quality in both regions was about average this summer--11 "code red" days in Baltimore and seven in Washington. Compared with a decade ago, air quality in the region has improved, but still falls short of federal standards intended to protect public health. To meet the standards, the region is allowed no more than one smog-violation day a summer for three years in a row.
In the Baltimore region, which includes Howard and Anne Arundel counties, EPA officials said the air quality plan fell 13 tons a day short of needed reductions in smog-causing volatile organic compounds. The plan already includes 120 tons a day of promised reductions in those chemicals.
A commission of East Coast states with smog problems meets next month to begin a process of identifying measures that could be imposed regionally to make up the shortfall in Baltimore and other cities.
"We don't anticipate that we would have to resort to any Draconian measures in order to make up their shortfall," said Ann Marie De Biase, director of air and radiation management for the state Department of the Environment.
The Washington area already has missed one deadline to meet federal smog standards--it was supposed to have cleaner air by last month. Instead, the region expects to meet those standards by November 2005.
The Washington area's plan to meet federal clean air standards is not complete because it does not yet include an update of pollution levels from cars, trucks and other motor vehicles, according to Joan Rohlfs, chief of air quality planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
The EPA strengthened smog-reduction plans in nine major urban areas with air pollution problems.
Location Days exceeding 1-hour ozone standard, 1999
New York (1) 13
Philadelphia (2) 11
Hartford (3) 10
Milwaukee (4) 10
Chicago/Gary, Ind. 1
(1) Includes Elizabeth, Patterson, Jersey City, Newark, N.J.; White Plains and Yonkers, N.Y.; and Bridgeport, Danbury and Stamford, Conn.
(2) Includes Wilmington, Del., and Trenton, N.J.
(3) Includes New London, New Haven and Waterbury, Conn.
(4) Includes Racine, Kenosha, Wis.
SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency