States Fill Vacuum of Federal Inaction

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By John Holusha As a result of federal inaction, many important environmental policies are being set at the state level, often to the dismay of the industries affected.

In response to the states' activism on environmental matters, some industries are rushing to Washington, seeking uniform federal rules.

Maine, for instance, has banned the multi-layer boxes used for children's drinks because they are not recyclable. California enforces stiffer standards for auto emissions than most states, and last year Massachusetts required vehicles to meet the California standards.

And in 1988 seven Northeast states required oil companies to lessen the volatility of gasoline in summer months, seeking to reduce the amount of smog-forming chemicals in the atmosphere.

The Northeast states, which have the most severe trash disposal problems, may soon take the lead in measures to reduce the generation of solid waste. Once again, the lack of action at the federal level is inducing state level initiatives.

``Over the past 10 years public opinion has become more supportive of the environment, and state officials have recognized it better than federal officials,'' said Michael E. Kraft, a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Students of government say the anti-regulation, free market orientation of the Reagan and Bush administrations produced a power vacuum on some environmental issues.

``Most state officials would argue that these things should be done at the federal level, but they are not getting done,'' said Richard Dennison, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, a research and litigation group based in New York. ``So you are going to have a lot of different approaches by the states and you have to anticipate some failures along with successes.''

Fearful of a crazy-quilt pattern of state regulations, the consumer products industry has asked the Federal Trade Commission to issue guidelines on the use of labels that claim environmental benefits.

The industry's action was prompted by different sets of regulatikns adopted by New York, California and Rhode Island, and by a challenge from a group of state attorneys general to the claims of some manufacturers.

The trade comission agreed last week to hold hearings on the issue, although it may act without pre-empting state laws.

``Consumers, industry and state attorneys general want and need national environmental marketing guidelines,'' said John R. Cady, president of the National Association of Food Processors, which led the industry's appeal.

Absent any federal action, the industries' desire for uniformity could mean that a relatively few large states might set what amount to national standards. This appears to be happening with auto emissions, environmentalists and state officials say.

When Congress passed the Clean Air Act last year, it set new limits on emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen. As it has in the past, Congress permitted California to issue more demanding standards and allowed other states to adopt the stiffer California standards.

Previously, other states were content with the federal standards, but last year Massachusetts imposed the California standards and New York officials issued a rule requiring that cars meet the California standards starting with 1993 models and have begun another proceeding to embrace the stiffer rules California will begin in 1995.

Michael Bradley, executive director of Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a group of air pollution officials, said as many as nine other states were considering adopting the California standards.

Officials and environmentalists say that if enough big states take this step, auto makers will be forced to improve the emissions performance of their cars across the board. …