DETROIT — PRESIDENT BUSH recently offered his plan for the first complete revision of the Clean Air Act since 1970, but rather than looking to Washington, a coalition of Northeast states is turning to the West Coast. Last summer was a difficult one for New England and the mid-Atlantic region, for in the midst of a wilting heat wave, air pollution reached record levels.
``We had day after day after day of smog,'' recalls Michael Bradley, executive director of NESCAUM, which stands for the North East States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a coalition of the six New England states plus New York and New Jersey.
Those eight states account for roughly a third of all cars sold in the US. They spew out about 40 percent of the region's ozone, making them the single-worst source of air pollution, despite almost two decades use of automotive emission-control systems.
Environmental officials had hoped that President Bush would propose a further crackdown on tailpipe exhaust as part of his proposed re-write of the Clean Air Act, but in critical areas, says Thomas Jorling, commissioner of Environmental Conservation for the state of New York, the proposal marks the triumph of politics over health concerns.
``There are pieces in that document that we can support,'' Mr. Jorling says. But in the area of automotive emissions, ``the administration's bill falls well short.''
Concerned that there would be little change from current emissions standards, NESCAUM is turning to an alternative approach.
As part of the initial Clean Air legislation, California was allowed to enact stricter standards to deal with its unique and quite serious smog problems. Then, in 1977, Congress amended the law to allow other states to copy the California standards. Until now, no one has made such a move, but suddenly, a dozen states are giving it another thought.
Currently the national automotive exhaust standard allows for the emission of .41 grams per mile of hydrocarbons, 1.0 g.p.m. of nitrous oxides, and 3.4 g.p.m. of carbon monoxide. The California standards currently are .41 g.p.m. of hydrocarbons, .7 g.p.m. of nitrous oxides, and 7.0 g.p.m. of carbon monoxide. In 1993, California significantly cuts allowable emissions to .25 g.p.m. of hydrocarbons, .4 g.p.m. of nitrous oxides, and 3.4 g.p.m. of carbon monoxide.
Additionally, California mandates that automakers offer a seven-year/70,000 warranty on emissions-related hardware, compared to a five-year/50,000 warranty in other parts of the country.
When the California Air Resources Board passed the 1993 revision several months ago, the auto industry claimed the new standards couldn't be met.
But Jorling scoffs that that was the same argument used back in 1970 when the original Clean Air Act was passed.
``It's clear [the auto industry] should stop dilly dallying and build a clean, durable car,'' Jorling says, ``because building a clean, durable car is economically and technologically feasible.''
The automakers say they have other problems with the NESCAUM decision. ``We continue to believe that motor-vehicle emission controls ought to be promulgated on a national basis,'' says Beryl Goldsweig, a Ford Motor Company spokeswoman. ``We would hope that the states would delay consideration of the issue until after Congress has concluded its action.''
Further, the automakers argue, by having to design and build separate vehicles for different parts of the country, buyers have to pay more. Yes, air quality officials agree, the new standards will raise the price of a typical new car by about 1 percent, or about $150.
As for waiting for Congress to set the national agenda, Jorling says that's like waiting for Godot. To get an effective revision of the Clean Air Act, he believes, will require the various states to force their agenda upon Congress.
The NESCAUM proposal must still go through a long approval process, and it will ultimately have to be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is so far opposed to the plan. But the EPA is not likely to use its veto to override strong state support, and the tougher standards should go into effect with the beginning of the 1993 model-year.
In fact, the Northeast consortium may be just the first group to act. Other states with air pollution problems, including Delaware, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Colorado, are also considering the adoption of the California tailpipe standards.