Although it may sound like a desperate -- to a legalistic loophole, a group of major Baltimore businesses wants to improve the region's air quality rating by combining the greater Baltimore and greater Washington areas.
Under the broader identity of the combined Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area, officially recognized by the Census Bureau in 1993, the area would have only a "serious" ozone pollution problem, instead of the "severe" ozone problem ascribed to the Baltimore area alone.
This downgrading would allow some 2,000 larger Baltimore employers to avoid the difficult and costly task of reducing the number of auto commuter trips made by their employees, a requirement of the federal government under the Clean Air Act for the nation's worst ozone areas.
Employers must persuade their employees to change driving and commuting patterns to cut total mileage by 25 percent, and thus reduce auto emissions that produce ozone, a serious lung irritant. Businesses could be hit with heavy fines for failure.
Baltimore has the sixth worst ozone problem, Washington the tenth worst, according to 1987-89 ozone monitoring data. But Washington has no such commuter-curb requirement.
A group backed by the Greater Baltimore Committee wants to remedy that inequity by getting Maryland and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to recognize the consolidated metro area as a single ozone pollution area -- but one that would not need employee-trip reduction plans.
The consolidation would not lower Baltimore's ozone level by mixing it with Washington's. It would permit EPA to use more current three-year ozone readings to classify the new area's pollution level. And those readings, in both Washington and Baltimore, are decidedly lower.
The Baltimore-Washington corridor is increasingly an economically integrated market, sharing a common airshed. It's unwise and unfair to disadvantage the Baltimore economy with employee-commuter restrictions, assuring that businesses and jobs flow to the Washington area. Especially when the gain in clean air is minimal.
There are serious doubts about the effectiveness of the employee-commuter program nationwide. Southern California efforts have been unsuccessful. The cost-benefit ratio is high. Even EPA says the plans won't greatly improve air quality.
We hope the Greater Baltimore Committee effort will force EPA to recognize the single metro area, as authorized by the Clean Air Act, and to re-evaluate the need for these questionable controls that will surely reduce the number of Baltimore employees, along with their commuting trips.