WASHINGTON - Automakers have gradually, and sometimes grudgingly, learned to live with federal laws and regulations, plus California air rules, but they may be facing a new wave of state-originated directives.
Vermont, in an apparent first, wants all cars and trucks shipped there for sale beginning next March 1 to carry warning labels if they contain the toxic element mercury. The requirement, straightforward though it may sound, is raising all kinds of questions for car companies.
'We are in negotiations now over what form that labeling would take,' said Kris Kiser, vice president for state affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Automakers want to know: Should the warning be on individual parts, such as some headlights, or on the whole vehicle? If it is for the whole vehicle, does the label go on the door post or in the owner's manual? Whom exactly is being warned - the car buyer or, ultimately, the scrap yard operator? Who is responsible for the label if the mercury is in dealer-installed parts?
'None of these were addressed in the statute,' Kiser complained.
More fundamentally, he said, 'manufacturers don't produce cars designed for Vermont, or destined for Vermont. It's hard for us to control where a car may inevitably end up.'
Kiser said the alliance, representing 11 U.S.- and overseas-based companies, will seek to change or repeal the Vermont law next year.
At the federal level, the EPA requires only that factories and other facilities processing more than 25,000 pounds of mercury a year or using more than 10,000 pounds a year include it on their annual reports about toxic materials.
Gloria Bergquist, the alliance vice president for communications, said carmakers haven't estimated labeling costs yet. She said they are concerned mostly about logistics and about creating labels that don't really benefit consumers.
Meanwhile, other New England states and the eastern provinces of Canada are looking at the Vermont law as a model for their own versions, according to state and industry officials.
Christopher Recchia, deputy commissioner of Vermont's De-partment of Environmental Con-servation, said the region is so concerned about mercury because most of its lakes, rivers and ponds contain contaminated fish that women of child-bearing age and children are advised not to eat. Mercury has been linked to birth defects, mental illness and loss of mental function.
Scientists think much of the contamination arrived airborne from sources around the planet, especially coal-burning power plants, but about a third originated locally, primarily from trash and waste.
Recchia said the mercury labels, required on all kinds of products, might influence consumers to choose a mercury-free lamp or appliance over one that contains the material, but the warnings are unlikely to affect vehicle purchases.
`A SERIOUS PROBLEM'
Labels on cars and trucks will help dismantlers and recyclers keep mercury out of the waste stream, Recchia said. He expects the state to reach an agreement with car companies to put a label on each vehicle identifying its mercury-containing parts. Certain electrical switches are the main culprits, he added.
Carmakers are not the only ones concerned about the law, passed initially in early 1998 and revised in this year's legislative session.
The National Electrical Manu-facturers Association, whose members include makers of mercury-containing fluorescent lighting, has challenged the law in federal court.
David Rocchio, deputy legal counsel to Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, countered: 'We don't believe it's a law that is impossible to work with. It can be complied with in an economic manner.'
Democrat Dean, who is also a physician, signed the legislation and supports its objectives because 'mercury is a serious problem,' Rocchio said.
Kiser, of the manufacturers alliance, said, 'Mercury is a problem in the environment, we acknowledge that, but in (automobile) parts, the mercury contained in the parts is not evaporating. It is wholly contained in the parts, and it is minuscule.'