A Senate spending panel approved language yesterday delaying a long-awaited federal rule aimed at curbing air pollution from lawnmowers and other small-engine machines.
The amendment to the Interior Department appropriations bill, a compromise between Democrats who favor the rule and Republicans who want to block it, instructs the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a six-month study into whether installing catalytic converters to reduce air pollutants from outdoor equipment would pose a safety threat.
The voice vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee marked the latest skirmish in a two-year battle over how to regulate pollutants from lawnmowers and other low-horsepower machines. Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), a powerful advocate for engine manufacturer Briggs & Stratton Corp., a major employer in Missouri, has worked doggedly to block state and federal officials from requiring less polluting outdoor power equipment.
Bond said in an interview that he is worried the catalytic converters required by the pending rule would pose a potential fire threat.
"EPA has a responsibility to determine if this is a safe means, a practical means of achieving emissions reductions, and that has not been done," he said, adding that EPA Administrator Steve Johnson agreed in a phone conversation yesterday to conduct the peer-reviewed study.
Environmental advocates said the amendment undermines efforts to curb smog-causing pollutants from engines of 50 horsepower or less. Catalytic converters reduce harmful emissions by as much as 75 percent, they noted, and an EPA report concluded that machines with catalytic converters are no hotter than those without the devices.
Low-horsepower machines account for at least 10 percent of the nation's smog-forming pollution, which has been linked to respiratory and heart disease, according to the EPA. A single lawnmower emits as much pollution in an hour as 50 cars driving 20 miles.
"Once again, a special-interest lobby has had the effect of undercutting an EPA rule that has the potential to protect public health," said Frank O'Donnell, director of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch.
The congressional fight over curbing small-engine pollution began in the fall of 2003 when Bond, whose state is home to two Briggs & Stratton plants with at least 1,500 employees, wrote language in that year's Interior spending bill that would have barred California from setting its own standards for small gasoline-powered engines. After both Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) objected, Bond agreed to revise it so California could push ahead with its own rule while the rest of the nation waited for new federal guidelines.
The EPA was supposed to publish its small-engine rule by Dec. 1, 2004, but it missed the deadline and told lawmakers it would have a final regulation in place by May 2006. Now that deadline is likely to be pushed back, because the agency will not be able to complete its fire-threat study until the end of the year at the earliest.
Feinstein spokesman Howard Gantman said yesterday's compromise was not ideal, but it means California will still be able to finalize its standards by 2007. The California Air Resources Board has estimated that by 2020 the tighter requirements would cut as much pollution as taking 1.8 million cars off the road.
"It's an important victory in keeping this whole effort alive, which is curbing pollution from small engines," Gantman said.
Bond had earlier attached language to the Interior bill that would have delayed the federal rule even longer by requiring the government to pay the Swedish-based International Consortium for Fire Safety about $650,000 to conduct an open-ended study of the issue. The consortium's Washington representative, Karen Suhr, is also the chief D.C. lobbyist for the National Association of State Fire Marshals, one of the leading groups opposed to the stricter pollution standards. Suhr did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.
Bond said the fire marshals association told him to hire the consortium to examine the potential fire threat, though his spokesman said Suhr did not contact the senator's staff on the issue.
William Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators, said the amendment would bar other states from adopting standards similar to California's.
"They're held hostage to the delay imposed by Senator Bond," Becker said, adding that at least a dozen states want to adopt the standards. "They have no place to turn."