BOSTON — MASSACHUSETTS service-station owners are now by law contributing to cleaner air across the state. Station owners are having to install special equipment to trap smog-causing gasoline vapor. Regulations requiring vapor-trapping nozzles on fuel pumps went into effect last week for the state's large-volume service stations. The Stage II system, as it is called, will gradually be phased in for other stations by 1993. Small stations that pump less than 20,000 gallons of gasoline a month are exempt.
The system catches and returns fuel vapors to underground storage tanks, thereby conserving fuel and reducing pollution.
Stage II is the second stage in a two-part state initiative to cut down on gasoline vapor pollution. The state's Stage I system, enacted several years ago, requires vapor recovery equipment at the wholesale level - for gasoline storage tanks and trucks.
``It is one of the most cost-effective air pollution systems going if you look at the cost per ton of pollution prevented,'' says Tom Higgins, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Urban areas classified as having moderate pollution or worse by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will soon be required to have the Stage II-type systems for gasoline pumps under the 1990 federal Clean Air Act.
``The new [clean air] law ... strengthens the requirements for it. I think cities will take it seriously this time,'' says Richard Ayres, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Other metropolitan areas - such as Washington, New York, St. Louis, and parts of California - already require gas stations to use the same vapor recovery equipment.
Air pollution from Bay State gas stations will be reduced by nearly 25 tons a day or 9,000 tons a year when the program is fully implemented in 1993, DEP officials say. In addition, the vapor-recovery program will save nearly 3 million gallons of fuel a year as well as reduce public exposure to gasoline fumes, DEP officials say.
Gas station owners are nevertheless concerned about the costs, which for an average-size six-pump station would be about $18,000 to $20,000, Mr. Higgins says.
But Lawrence Cresta, president of Bay State Gasoline Retailers Association, says it will cost the average-size gas station owner $30,000 to $40,000 to install the equipment. Many service owners will be put out of business, he warns. Besides just attaching the nozzles on pumps, excavation work is required for underground piping to storage tanks.
``There is an issue of air quality and there is an issue of mom and pop [owned stations] being out of business,'' he says. Mr. Cresta predicts that the Stage II system will force 15 to 20 percent of the state's gas stations out of business.
Cresta says car manufacturers should be required to install new ``on-board'' vapor-trapping equipment. The on-board system channels gasoline fumes back into automobile fuel tanks. But the technology may not be ready to install in new cars until later in the decade. Environmentalists say it's better to start cleaning up the air now rather than later.
``It will take up to 15 years to reap the same benefit'' from automobiles, says Leah Weiss, environmental analyst at DEP.
Massachusetts and other Northeastern states have already passed laws to regulate the volatility of gasoline beyond federal EPA standards. Gasoline volatility is based on how quickly gasoline evaporates into the air.