Union Tribune

November 13, 2003

Missouri mowers beat California's clean air in Senate


WASHINGTON California lost a Senate showdown yesterday that pitted Missouri jobs against clean air in the Golden State, a debate that demonstrated how competing interests in two far-removed states can become intertwined on Capitol Hill.

The debate, which focused on the unlikely topic of lawn mowers and weed trimmers, reflected a tangle of interests from Republicans who want to protect businesses to Democrats who want to protect air quality to fire officials who fear that air-pollution-control gadgets could cause more California fires.

The nation's leading maker of lawn-equipment engines, the Briggs & Stratton Corp., argues it is too expensive to re-create their products to meet California's new, tougher emissions rules for small engines. Moreover, the company warns, the catalytic converters required to make engines run more cleanly would increase the chance of fires in the state.

Yesterday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., failed in her effort to fight a plan to strip California's authority to create air pollution standards for small engines. Feinstein said the proposal by Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., is designed to benefit two Briggs & Stratton plants in his state. She said California risks losing federal highway funds if it fails to reduce pollution.

"If we don't deal with it, we can't meet the clean air standards and we jeopardize our highway grants," Feinstein told the Senate.

California regulators want to toughen pollution rules for small engines that power things such as lawn mowers, weed trimmers, chain saws, forklifts, small boats and off-road vehicles.

Collectively, such engines can spit out as much pollution as 1.8 million cars, according to the California Air Resources Board, which in September required smog-reducing catalytic converters on most small engines by 2007. It is part of a larger plan to comply with the federal Clean Air Act.

The California Fire Chiefs Association has asked the state Air Resources Board to study the fire risks from catalytic converters.

Bond's plan would exempt engines smaller than 50 horsepower from any state's pollution-fighting rules, a compromise from his original threshold of 175 horsepower. Engine manufacturers would still have to follow federal clean air rules, which tend to be more lenient than those in California.

Bond convinced the Senate to include his plan in a $122 billion spending measure for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies. The bill is likely to be wrapped into a larger spending bill for a possible vote next week.

"Today's passage . . . is a victory for the thousands of families in Missouri, and across the nation, who's jobs were threatened by California's attempt to force-feed the nation dangerous new regulations," Bond said.

Briggs & Stratton is the world's largest producer of air-cooled gasoline engines for outdoor power equipment. The company, whose two Missouri plants employee 2,000 people, estimates that California's tougher pollution rules would cost a collective 22,000 jobs in 23 states where the company operates.

The company argued that it is expensive to retool its plants to make cleaner engines and has threatened to move its operations overseas.