June 30, 2008

Dirty Engines From China Pollute U.S. Air

WASHINGTON _ With costly new anti-pollution rules looming for lawn mowers, boat engines and many other small motorized devices, U.S. manufacturers are pressing the government to halt the imports of "dirty" equipment from China.

The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. customs agents already have stepped up enforcement efforts, seizing or turning away thousands of motorcycles, generators, water pumps and other Asian-made outdoor power equipment illegally imported under existing rules.

"We see everybody from major corporations to mom-and-pop stores trying to import everything from generators to chain saws to weed-whackers to ATVs," said Adam Kushner, the EPA's director of air enforcement. "If it moves and blows smoke, it's being imported."

The stakes are about to grow higher for U.S. and foreign manufacturers alike. A new EPA regimen of rules for small engines will require catalytic converters and other design changes aimed at reducing exhaust pollutants by millions of pounds in coming years.

With the rules due out in July, American manufacturers are mounting a late campaign pressuring the government to step up enforcement of the Clean Air Act at American borders and write in provisions to discourage the arrival of more polluting equipment.

The recent flood of Chinese imports, legal and otherwise, presents competitive threats for U.S. companies such as Milwaukee-based Briggs & Stratton. Last year, Briggs, which has two plants in China, closed its Rolla, Mo., gasoline engine manufacturing plant, which employed 800 people.

The company's other Missouri plant is in Poplar Bluff.

"The tip of the iceberg," was how Briggs & Stratton described a recent government seizure of imported equipment in a letter last month to the EPA demanding better enforcement.

Briggs, John Deere, Stihl and other companies with American plants are pushing the EPA to insert liability provisions, registration requirements and other wording in the new rule as a means stem the flow of Chinese equipment.

John Foster, product compliance manager for Stihl Inc., noted in his recent letter to the EPA that his company invests millions of dollars to comply with EPA rules. But foreign manufacturers, he wrote, "are becoming ever more sophisticated and brazen as they implement fraudulent schemes" to avoid such costs.

Foster's company had reason to be pleased when the EPA closed a major case this spring. A Taiwanese manufacturer and three U.S. companies accused of importing 200,000 dirty-engine chain saws agreed to pay a $2 million civil penalty.

But it fell short of a complete victory: The chain saws already had been sold across the country, some by Sears, a failure that will result in 268 tons of carbon emissions pumped into the air during the saws' lifetimes.

"Unless they are caught by U.S. Customs before they enter the United States, there's a good chance that they will hit the market," Foster said in an interview.

As with such problematic Chinese imports as tainted seafood, poisonous toothpaste and leaded toys, the arrival of dirty small engines is a recent problem.

Five years ago, the EPA had no cases stemming from illegal Chinese equipment arriving at U.S. borders. But by 2005, 44 of the 50 EPA dirty-engine import cases were Chinese.

That trend has continued, and most of the recent cases settled by the government also involved Chinese imports, EPA officials said. Among them were two cases this spring that prevented distribution of more than 700 motorcycles and ATVs that arrived illegally at East Coast ports.

The rising tide of Chinese imports has much to do with the ease of conducting commerce over the Internet, officials say. Simply by supplying a credit card number, a company, broker or an individual can arrange for the arrival of a shipping container of equipment at any U.S. port from China's burgeoning manufacturing sector.

The new EPA emission regulations will increase the burden on border agents to intercept those dirty engines. The long-debated rules evolved after a successful effort by Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., to prevent states from adopting California's strict rules. Bond argued that the emission rules would be an unfair burden on U.S. manufacturers.

Three years later, the American companies are supporting the new rules and making investments to meet them despite concerns that noncomplying imports will have an unfair market advantage.

EPA officials declined to discuss what specific wording might be written into the regulations but said by e-mail that "we intend to include discussion and new provisions in the upcoming final rule to further address this issue."

Environmental advocates such as Frank O'Donnell, of the nonprofit Clean Air Watch in Washington, are supporting the industry's demand after battling manufacturers for years over the scope of the rule.

All those dirty Chinese engines, O'Donnell said, "are a significant source of our smog."


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