Region moves closer to air quality targets

A spike in vehicle pollution calculated last year by regional planners will be offset by reductions at power plants and other non-mobile sources, putting the Washington, D.C., region back on track to meet air quality standards by 2005, regional planners say.

“The critical issue in this plan was the total. When we looked at the power plant reductions by 2005 and everything else, the total even with mobile [sources] going up, we were still below our maximum for all sources,” said Ron Kirby, director of transportation for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Last November the region appeared to have a 50-ton hole in its daily emissions budget, but now with the offset its planners now only have to meet “rate of progress” benchmarks imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency after it reclassified the region as “severe” for air quality for not conforming to a 1999 deadline.

To that end, the Council of Governments approved a draft air quality plan this week that goes to local leaders and community for feedback before its adoption in July.

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors will be briefed June 17.

The menu of measures has items that could cost jurisdictions and individuals:

— A commuter tax, or parking impact fee, on D.C. employers who provide parking spaces. The D.C. City Council is considering legislation to implement this, and the other regional officials said it would have to send all its funds to improving air quality.

— “Cash for Clunkers” lawn mower replacement program where persons are paid $75 to replace their gas lawn mowers with electric or manual push mowers. In 1997, an estimated 782,000 residential mowers were in the region. Participation rates are hard to predict, and no program like this has been done on a large scale, staff said.

— Expand wind-generated electricity purchasing in Montgomery County to the rest of the region.

— Electrify airport terminals to reduce aircraft idling with engines.

— Limit types of paints, solvents and automotive bodyshop chemicals used in the area.

Additions to the air quality plan cannot be taken lightly because they have the force of law, unlike a separate category of measures targeted at transportation emissions more commonly referred to, said Joan Rohlfs, chief of air quality planning for the Council of Governments.

For example, San Diego had its air quality plan held up because it committed to starting a bus line, however it did not meet a goal for a 15 percent increase in ridership, said Prince William Public Works engineer Rick Canizales.

A lawsuit by the Sierra Club and Earthjustice forced the EPA to throw out the region’s air quality plan last year. A conditional plan must be adopted by the end of the summer.

Environmentalists filed another lawsuit in April to overturn other aspects of the approval process.

“We need to catch up to where we were supposed to be before 1999,” said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. “They keep playing around with the numbers. From day to day you don’t know where they’re going to be. The numbers that matter are first of all, number of exceedances last summer — we had 9 Code Red days and more than 30 Code Orange days.”

Regional planners said weather year to year takes air quality to extremes. Last year was unusually hot, and this year with all the rain the region is on a pace to have much less ozone problems, planners said.

Baron said the 50-ton exceedance of oxides of nitrogen, or NOx, shown in models last year is still there yet “they’re still claiming that despite that increase the air is going to be cleaner than even they were predicting before. To us that is Enron-style accounting.”

“No one is delaying this. It takes time to find measures and then funding and detail the impacts they will have,” said Supervisor Mark K. Hill, R-Coles, who serves as chairman of the Council of Governments. “This has been such a scrunched schedule this past year. I’m a little disappointed we don’t have more time to consider the impact of other measures that might be included, but we don’t know enough about them to be comfortable.”

Even the draft measures they did agree on this week are meaningless until public comment is received next month, she pointed out.

“I don’t fault Earthjustice or the Sierra Club for their views. I think we all want cleaner air. But how we get there is a whole different ball game,” Hill said.

Environmentalists say this round of progress that is not enough is because of them.

“The only reason they’re doing them now is because we sued them,” said Sierra Club spokeswoman Melanie Mayock.