Northeastern States Act on Auto Emissions

RESIDENTS of the Northeast may soon breathe cleaner air as states here move toward stricter auto-emissions standards.

New York and Massachusetts are the only ones to have adopted - for the 1995 model car - California's stiff standards. And a recent court decision is expected to help pave the way for other states to adopt the rules, Bay State environmental officials say.

In the New York State decision, a federal judge reversed his ruling that barred the state from proceeding with its low-emissions vehicle program. The ruling, however, is part of an ongoing lawsuit from the state's car industry.

"The decision is still extremely helpful to us, and we are extremely pleased with it," says James Milkey, Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General. The Bay State has also been sued by the auto industry over its low-emissions program. A federal judge will hear arguments this fall.

The New York ruling is an important move in the effort to urge other northeastern states to adopt the program. "We're moving forward and other states are actively considering it," says Massachusetts Rep. David Cohen (D).

Connecticut is drafting regulations for public hearings this fall. Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey are also moving ahead. Maine finished its regulatory process, but is waiting for three other New England states to adopt the program first. Long-term problem

Regional environmental officials have long worked on air pollution. In 1989, New England, New Jersey, and New York signed a pact to promote stricter clean-air regulations. "Essentially, this pollution does not respect arbitrary political state boundaries. So there is an essential need to come up with regional strategies," says Jason Grumet, a Boston-based mobile-source analyst for Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management.

Air quality is a growing concern. Over each of the last 10 summers, the Bay State had seven to 10 unhealthy air-quality days, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. But in 1988 alone, there were 30 such days. Environmental officials believe that half of the area's air pollution comes from auto exhaust, Mr. Grumet says.

Automakers, meantime, are waging a strong campaign against low-emission regulations. They say introducing the 1995 model car in the Northeast breaks federal law under the Clean Air Act. That law requires that California cars use only that state's "reformulated gasoline," a special recipe containing less sulfur than gasoline in the Northeast, they say. The cars will not work well with the new less-polluting "federal reformulated gasoline" that northeastern states will adopt by 1995, industry representativ es say. Industry disagrees on plan

As a result, auto companies should not be forced to build the new cars tailored for the Northeast, a "prohibitively expensive," prospect, says Gerald Esper, environmental engineer at the Detroit-based American Automobile Manufacturers Association.

"Vehicles designed to run on California's reformulated gasoline certainly could have problems running on federal reformulated gasoline," Mr. Esper says. "Manufacturers will have to design and build this vehicle differently for New York and Massachusetts."

But Bay State environmental officials believe that the vehicles can run on fuel in the Northeast. "We feel very comfortable with the fact that California cars will be able to run on other gasoline," says Daniel Greenbaum, the commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Massachusetts is including the low-emissions program as part of its State Implementation Plan to be submitted to the EPA under the Clean Air Act by Nov. 15. Environmental officials believe that the state's program is an important part of that plan.

Mr. Cohen says regulating auto emissions is the most cost-effective way to comply with the Clean Air Act. "[Otherwise} we will have to regulate domestic smokestack industries much more strictly, and that will have a definite adverse economic impact ... and also make Massachusetts a less-attractive place to do business."

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