Region to miss clean air deadline

New modeling data predict auto emissions will be a whopping 47 tons a day over the law for the D.C. region, an insurmountable amount of smog that would result in cut-off federal road dollars and possible lawsuits as the region approaches a 2005 deadline.

“At the moment, we are on track to miss the deadline,” said Phil Mendelson, a D.C. city councilman who is chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which develops the region’s air quality plan.

“It is a big problem, no question about it,” said Ron Kirby, the Council of Governments’ director of transportation. A standardized mobile model for emissions was approved by the EPA in January and is now being used by localities nationwide, Kirby said. The model is much more detailed with 28 classes of vehicles represented instead of eight and takes into account specific emissions rates and historical information, he said. The 30 percent increase in nitrogen-containing precursors to ozone is a preliminary estimate but should not change substantially, he said.

After years of dealing with its looming air pollution crisis through legal sidestepping and blaming the problem on wind-swept pollution from the Midwest, the region’s leaders now are left with no answers on how to solve the problem.

Millions have been spent on D.C. area pollution mitigation efforts — and this year two of the three tons reduced daily came from the elimination of 100 lane miles from the state’s six-year road building plan. But 47 tons dwarfs the three tons: “There simply aren’t 47 tons that you can get out of the mobile [source] budget,” said AAA spokesman Justin McNaull. “That’s huge numbers. That’s a number that is hard to understand.”

Politicians at every level of government are positioning on the air quality issue. Nonmobile sources like power plants could be looked at to close some of the gap, but on Friday President Bush loosened clean air rules to allow utilities, refineries and manufacturers to avoid having to install expensive new anti-pollution equipment when they modernize their plants. The policy change is under attack from environmentalists and Northeast states’ attorneys general who say it will further degrade air quality in Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states downwind from industrial plants.

Virginia is not among the states critical to the change.

“It will allow industries more options, give them incentive to modernize and change out older equipment and will actually bring cleaner air sooner,” said Attorney General Jerry Kilgore’s spokesman Tim Murtaugh.

But state rules can override the looser federal rules, and Rep. Jim Moran, D-8th District, said there is talk of trying to enlist Gov. Mark R. Warner to take some leadership on the issue.

Warner’s spokeswoman Ellen Qualls did not return phone calls Monday.

“It seems as though they [the Bush administration] had taken the side of industry as opposed to the consumers when we would have at least hoped for a balanced approach,” Moran said. “On something like this you don’t see people die. The pollution accumulates in their bodies over time and [the politicians will] be long out of office before the kids start dying off because of the excess pollution in their lungs.”

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman rejected critics’ claims that the changes would produce dirtier air. She said at a news conference that the changes will ”encourage emission reductions” by providing utilities and refinery operators new flexibility when considering operational changes and expansion. She said the old program has ”deterred companies from implementing projects that would increase energy efficiency and decrease air pollution.”

Mendelson said MWCOG leaders have known as far back as the spring that the new model would show higher amounts of nitrogen emissions in the short-term but the 47 tons was a complete surprise.

The old model took a snapshot of the mid-1990s and assumed the vehicle fleet stayed the same, Kirby said.

That caused pollutant emissions from light trucks and sport-utility vehicles to be underestimated. Trucks produce higher emissions, so when the input was adjusted, emission estimates soared last year. Passenger car use has steadily dropped from 62 percent of the fleet to a projected 42 percent in 2005, Kirby said.

In the long term, vehicle emissions should drop from cleaner technologies like hybrid cars and more fuel-efficient engines, he said.

Everything is now on the table for emissions reductions, Kirby said

“If it turned out that with a relative modest amount of money we could pay the power plants to reduce their emissions, which is a very hypothetical thing, that’s the kind of thing we could look at,” he said. “The same thing with construction equipment, if we could get them to retrofit engines, use cleaner fuels … we might get a significant amount of reductions there.”

“As a practical matter, I don’t think it’s that simple,” Mendelson said of nonmobile sources rescuing the mobile sources. Vehicles will still have to make significant emissions cuts, he said.

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