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Grand Prix aims to be green, but challenges remain

When race fans roll into town for the Baltimore Grand Prix this weekend, they can expect to find the Inner Harbor course lined with more than 1,200 recycling bins, and their drinks will be served in cups made of biodegradable corn instead of plastic.

The Indy-style racecars will be burning 100 percent ethanol rather than gasoline as they roar through downtown streets, and drivers in one contest will be judged partly on their fuel mileage and greenhouse gas emissions.

Promoters of the three-day motorsports extravaganza vow this will be the "greenest Grand Prix ever." They've pledged to make it carbon-neutral, with zero net waste, by its fifth annual running in 2015.

"We want to do this right. We want this to be a unique event among the racing community," said Jason Boseck, director of green initiatives and sustainability for the Baltimore Grand Prix.

Professional sports, like many businesses, have climbed on the green bandwagon in recent years, and auto racing is no exception.

But much of the Baltimore event's greening will have to wait, as organizers and city officials say several measures intended to offset the race's environmental impacts are still in the planning stages. Meanwhile, experts say the racecars and spectators will almost certainly have an effect on Baltimore's spotty air quality, though no one can say how much.

"Whatever you think about racing, it's going to add some more pollution," said Janice E. Nolen, an assistant vice president for national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association. "And it can be harmful."

Indy cars run on ethanol, which experts say is a little cleaner-burning than gasoline. But the cars have no catalytic converters to capture pollution from their exhaust, and on Baltimore's course are likely to get less than 3 miles per gallon, according to an IndyCar spokeswoman.

Yet there's been little or no research, it seems, to document their emissions. That may be because testing is complicated and costly, and because Congress exempted racing from Clean Air Act regulations in 1990.

Ana M. Rule, a researcher associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said she thinks construction traffic and spectators, not the racecars, are the bigger issue.

"The traffic leading up to the race is the real problem," she said. "And as far as I know, no one is measuring it."

State environmental and health officials say they're not concerned because they expect race-related traffic, and air-quality impacts, will be about the same as for a home Ravens game or a U2 concert in a stadium that holds about 70,000 people. And with Inner Harbor roads blocked, fewer people will be driving downtown, said Dawn Stoltzfus, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Spectators might significantly lessen the burden by taking public transportation, as they did during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, said Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of environmental health coordination at Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Even without the race, Baltimore's everyday air quality in summer is moderate to unhealthy for asthmatics and others with breathing or heart problems. There have been 19 days since May 1 when ozone pollution was bad enough for health officials to caution those with breathing difficulties to limit outdoor activities, and on five days the smog was a threat even to healthy people.

No one has figured out the amount of climate-warming carbon dioxide likely to come from the 100,000 people that organizers hope will converge on downtown for the races. But an Indianapolis Star analysis of the environmental footprint of the Indy 500 estimated that the race, which draws three times the number of spectators expected for the Baltimore event, would generate 2,000 tons.

Baltimore race organizers say they plan to address all of the environmental impacts, including downtown air quality and the event's carbon footprint — just not all this year.

"We've got a five-year trajectory," said Boseck, the Grand Prix's sustainability director, referring to the agreement with the city to hold the races here through 2015. "We're worried about getting barriers built, much less some of the things on the sustainability side."

But Boseck said steps have been taken to distinguish the Baltimore event from other urban street races. There will be as many recycling containers around the grandstands as trash bins, he said, and drink vendors will burn biodiesel in their generators. Nonrecycled trash will be taken to the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co. incinerator, where the heat from burning it will be converted into energy. (Many environmentalists view waste-to-energy incineration as less than green.)

Organizers are urging race fans to take public transportation and offering racks for bicycles. For those driving in, organizers are pointing fans to outlying parking lots, where they can catch shuttle buses and avoid emissions-generating traffic jams.

To achieve carbon neutrality, the Grand Prix has hired a consultant to measure and calculate the carbon dioxide emissions generated by vendors and fans. In the next few years, the organizers will look to offset the carbon footprint. This weekend, though, they'll have solar-powered lighting along the pit lane and a corral for the display of electric vehicles.

One of the races will be greener than the rest, featuring Le Mans-style sports cars engineered to burn fuel more efficiently. Supporters of "green racing" say they hope the clean diesel engines, advanced hybrid powertrains and other new technology tried out in the American LeMans Series will catch on in the auto industry at large, translating into reduced oil consumption and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

The removal of trees this summer to make way for race grandstands angered some residents and environmental activists, but race officials have committed to planting about 198 trees and providing 5,000 saplings — far more than they cut.

Beth Strommen, the city's sustainability director, said the Baltimore Grand Prix provides an opportunity to spread a message of environmental sensitivity.

"Here's a group of people that don't normally think sustainability," she said. "The race itself can lead by example and educate everybody else."

Boseck said race organizers aren't focused yet on curbing the environmental impact of the racers, but they hope to tackle that in coming years.

"We understand there is an impact when you bring an event of this size and type into an urban environment," he said. "I don't think we want to run away from that."

One of the racers, Danica Patrick, has lent her name to a public health initiative called DRIVE4COPD, which raises awareness of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive illness that makes it difficult to breathe. Emphysema claimed the life of Patrick's grandmother.

"We're not only becoming more aware of our health, but we're taking care of the world, trying to make it a little bit better, too," Patrick said of the Grand Prix.

The effort is timely. Nolen said car emissions from even short-term spectator events can worsen breathing difficulties in vulnerable people, triggering asthma, coughing and wheezing, heart attacks, strokes and emergency room visits.

A recent study by the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit that studies air pollution with Environmental Protection Agency and auto industry funding, shows that 300 to 500 meters is the most dangerous zone around traffic. Children with asthma are the most subject to harm, but others, such as adults with heart or respiratory conditions, also are affected.

Dan Greenbaum, president of the group, said the pollution could impact people living and working close to the racecourse. He said there is evidence that the particles can infiltrate buildings.

One Federal Hill resident isn't taking any chances. James Keat, 81, said he plans to leave town. He has COPD and says he's worried that exhaust emissions from the racetrack about a quarter-mile from his home could aggravate his breathing problems.

"Nobody has taken the trouble, to the best of my knowledge, to find out if this race is going to have a bad health impact," Keat said. "I think this kind of racing is a great thing for people who like it, but it doesn't belong in the middle of the city."