State officials, reacting to an outcry from Baltimore employers, have loosened proposed regulations designed to cut air pollution from city commuters' automobiles.
Under the previous plan, the state would have imposed its toughest regulations in Baltimore -- where air quality is among the nation's worst. But city companies protested the strict requirement to limit employee commuting -- and perhaps force some to abandon cars for mass transit -- or risk big fines.
City employers aren't off the hook entirely, but the burden would now be shared more with suburban companies. Revised regulations being prepared by the Maryland Department of the Environment would impose the same standard on all large employers, from Cecil to Anne Arundel counties. The employers would have to make the same reduction in workers' commuting trips by 1996.
Environmentalists are arguing for quick adoption of the new proposal. Still, many employers insist on further loosening before it becomes law this year.
At stake in the coming weeks' debate: an attempt to help clean Baltimore's ozone-polluted air by changing the commuting patterns of up to 600,000 Marylanders.
After 18 months of negotiations with businesses and environmentalists over regulations triggered by the federal Clean Air Act, the state published its proposal last summer.
"We thought we had reached consensus," said Merrylin Zaw-Mon, head of the MDE's air division. "We were wrong."
Her office was peppered with letters from employers angry over the state's original proposal to create three air-pollution zones -- each with a different requirement for reducing commuting.
City employers with more than 100 workers were to ensure that there were an average of 2.5 people arriving at work for every car by 1996. Large employers located between the city's center and the Beltway would have had to ensure that there were 1.75 people per car at work. And those outside the Beltway, where there is little public transportation, would have had to achieve only 1.5 people per car.
Employers were to discourage workers from driving alone to work by helping to create car pools, subsidizing bus passes or allowing employees to work at home.
Failure to meet the standards could be expensive: The state could charge up to $25,000 a day in fines.
"It was potentially onerous for employers in this area at a time when they could least afford it," said Art Cederakis, director of distribution for Environmental Elements Corp., which has about 250 employees at its Caton Avenue operation. "We are near a bus line, but getting people here on the bus would probably require more than one transfer" and a long time, he said.
Mr. Cederakis said he and other employers did not realize how bad the state's original proposal was until they reviewed published regulations last summer.
After the businesses' complained, the state began drafting regulations to require all large employers in the city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Harford and Howard counties to increase the average number of workers per car by a little
more than a third of a person.
Next year, employers must survey the number of cars that arrive each day at work. By 1996, the ratio of workers per car must be 0.35 per person higher.
The state also agreed to reduce or waive the $25,000-a-day fines for violators who had made "good faith efforts" to reduce the number of single-person drivers.
The state's redraft is making some environmentalists nervous.
"We thought the deal was over, but industry keeps reopening it because they are never satisfied," said Glen Bresa, deputy executive manager of the American Lung Association of Maryland.
Mr. Bresa said he doesn't mind the change to help city employers but is worried about a reduction in enforcement. "We don't need to go any further," he said. "Some people would not be happy until there were no regulations at all."
But some employers, acknowledging that the air must be cleaned, wonder whether the state is going about it in the right way.
Charles Mitchell, vice president for Lord Baltimore Laundry Inc. on East Baltimore Street, is concerned because employers "are now put in a position of managing the behavior of employees on job and their behavior off the job. This is an imposition."
Michael Powell, head of the environmental department of the Baltimore law firm Gordon Feinblatt, Rothman Hoffberger & Hollander, said some clients are upset that the regulations will reduce smog by only about 2 tons a day -- 3 percent of the federally mandated reduction.
In addition, he said, while his city clients are glad that they are now treated the same as suburban Baltimore competitors, they are worried about competitors in areas with cleaner air and fewer regulations.
"The regulations as a whole make Baltimore less attractive," he said. "Richmond and Washington, D.C., won't have to do this. If you are free to put a plant anywhere you want, you'd think hard about whether Baltimore is the place you'd want."
Here's a summary of the state's new commuting regulations.
Who: Rules affect all employers with 100 or more employees in Baltimore City, as well as Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Cecil, Harford and Howard counties.
What: Next year, employers must survey their work force to find out how many cars and how many people arrive each day. By 1996, they must increase the ratio of people to cars by 0.35 of a person.
When: Proposal is expected to be published, and public hearings begin, next month.
Why: To reduce air pollution.