EPA delays decision on Northeast auto pollution plan

Federal regulators are urging Northeastern states and automakers to press efforts to reach a compromise for reducing pollution from automobiles.

The EPA delayed a decision Nov. 10 on whether to approve a pollution-control plan already submitted by 12 states from Virginia to Maine, hoping that a broader compromise strategy providing the same or greater pollution reduction can be negotiated.

EPA Administrator Carol Browner said the agency’s action on the plan proposed by the Ozone Transport Commission would be postponed until mid-December. She said the agency needed more time to review a large volume of public comments on the plan.

The EPA delay, however, also gives negotiators more time to work on a possible alternative that Browner said not only would reduce pollution in the Northeast, but also would lead to cleaner-burning cars in other parts of the country.

The Ozone Transport Commission, which is charged with developing air pollution control strategy for the Northeast, has asked the EPA to approve its plan. The states argue that the auto emission controls are needed for the region to meet federal air quality requirements in the coming years.

Automakers have strongly opposed the plan because it would require the region to adopt California's stringent emissions rules, including a requirement that states make some effort to promote the availability and sale of electric cars.

New York and Massachusetts already have enacted laws requiring the sale of some electric vehicles. If the plan is approved, other states may do the same.

The alternative being discussed at EPA's urging is aimed at developing a strategy acceptable to both the Northeastern states and the automakers.

The industry has proposed putting cleaner-burning gasoline cars on the market nationwide as long as it was not required to produce electric cars for the Northeast. But state environmental officials in Massachusetts and New York argue the industry approach would not reduce emissions in the Northeast enough to meet federal air quality requirements.

According to Browner, the latest proposal on the table would require automakers to produce cleaner-burning cars in every state and require development of an “advance technology vehicle” in the Northeast.

Such a vehicle likely would be natural gas-powered. But it could also be electric or use some other technology that demonstrates low emissions of smog-causing hydrocarbons, EPA officials said.

VMRC establishes blue crab sanctuary

Watermen say they are happy with new blue crab regulations adopted by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

“We can work with them,” Tangier Island waterman Jeff Crockett said following the commission’s vote Oct. 25. “This is not exactly what we wanted,” said Crockett, who wanted no new regulations passed, “but you don’t always get what you want.”

Crockett was among 50 Tangier Island watermen who took the mail boat from the island to Crisfield, Md., and rode the rest of the way in a chartered bus for a public hearing on the regulations. In all, 300 watermen attended the public hearing.

While the commission staff recommended stiffer regulations at the hearing, the watermen’s suggestions were pretty much followed in the regulations adopted by the commission.

The new regulations establish a 49-square-mile sanctuary for the blue crab off the tip of the Eastern Shore. The sanctuary will be closed to all crabbing from June 1 to Sept. 15.

The commission also prohibited crab dredging in the Hampton Roads harbor and the James River; required that crabpots, the cages used to trap crabs, have two escape hatches; and set April 1 through Nov. 30 as the season for using pots.

In addition, the commission limited the number of pots that watermen may use to catch peeler crabs — those crabs about to shed their exoskeletons.

Those wanting stronger regulations said the commission’s actions will not halt the decline of the blue crab in the Bay.

“We may be approaching a crisis,” said blue crab scientist Romuald N. Lipcius of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which provides scientific advice to the commission. “I don't see much here to stop that crisis.”

With the disastrous decline in the Bay’s oyster harvest and the closing of the rockfish season for several years, the blue crab remains the only dependable catch for many watermen. But over the past two seasons, the harvest has been low, and watermen say that crabs are harder to find.

The commission said it had to balance the call for stiffer regulations with the watermen's fears that they’d be regulated out of business.

"This is not any major cutback on the industry,” said commission member Pete Rowe. “All it does is preserve the status quo, and if we at least don’t do that we are shirking our responsibility.”

Lipcius asked the commission to limit the number of watermen who may catch crabs. But a majority of commission members said they are not ready to do that.

Bay clam population continues to drop

Chesapeake Bay watermen have abandoned clamming in droves this year because there aren't enough clams to make a living. The clam population in the Bay is even lower than in previous years, retailers report.

The reason isn’t clear, but watermen point to large amounts of fresh water entering the Bay this year, several hot summers, and the fact that Maryland waters are the southernmost area where clams can grow.

Bill Cheatham, a Maryland waterman, said clams typically become scarce around July as the Bay’s water heats up and stresses the shellfish.

By the first of June, the average boat was harvesting only two to four bushels a day, he said, even though prices have more than doubled. Watermen, retailers and scientists said clamming has been so poor this year that many clammers have taken down their rigs and begun running charters or oystering.

Maryland watermen have seen clam harvests plummet from 365,417 bushels in 1989 — a nearly $10 million industry — to less than 20,000 in 1992, the most recent year for which figures were available.

Preliminary figures for 1993 showed a catch of 40,000 bushels.

Clammer Bennett Bowen of Whitehall Beach gave up clamming in August and has been crabbing and oystering. “There may be one or two clammers in the whole Bay,” said Bowen, who used to supply Cantler's Riverside Inn in Annapolis.

EPA reviewing safety of atrazine

The EPA has begun a review of atrazine and two other pesticides, traces of which frequently have appeared in food and drinking water.

The review of atrazine, cyanazine and simazine is the first step in a lengthy process to determine whether the agricultural chemicals should be restricted or banned.

Atrazine, one of the most widely used pesticides in the Bay watershed, is one of the Bay Program’s 14 “Toxics of Concern,” a list of chemicals considered to pose the greatest potential threat to Bay resources.

Atrazine is the most widely used weed killer on corn fields in Indiana and other Corn Belt states, and the farm chemical industry and Midwestern farmers are expected to fight any effort to ban the pesticide.

EPA Administrator Carol Browner said Nov. 10 that she was concerned because the family of pesticides — known as the triazine family — “are frequently found in drinking water and food.”

The triazine family of pesticides, which are used generally to control weeds and grasses, have been linked to cancer in animal tests. While studies involving humans have offered conflicting conclusions, some of them suggest that prolonged exposure may contribute to breast cancer.

The EPA in recent years has sought to reduce the potential risks from the triazine chemicals. In 1990, use of atrazine was restricted and application rates were reduced. Two years later, application rates were further reduced.

The EPA said the special review of the three pesticides was ordered “to ensure the protection of public health from potential risks posed by residues frequently found in food and drinking water.” It said that the use of these pesticides “may pose a significant risk to public health.”

The review is expected to take about a year, officials said.

Casey administration ponders auto-exhaust plans

The Casey administration is trying to determine what its next step will be after the Pennsylvania General Assembly in November overode the governor’s veto of a bill that would delay a new centralized auto emissions testing program.

“Everything is on hold,” said Vincent Carocci, spokesman for Gov. Robert P. Casey. “We are not developing an alternative at this point.”

He said the Casey administration is trying to determine what is the next step because the administration of Gov.-elect Tom Ridge will be responsible for carrying out the auto emissions plan.

Pennsylvania was about to start a centralized system Jan. 1, but the legislature this week ordered a three-month delay while options are proposed. The law also directs the Transportation Department to have an alternative proposal submitted to the EPA by March 1. Ridge will be sworn in Jan. 17.

The state could lose highway money and face other sanctions if it does not start enhanced auto emissions inspections.