WASHINGTON (AP) - Sure, Americans want clean air. But don't mess with their backyard barbecues.
As much a summertime tradition as baseball and the Fourth of July, barbecuing has become a smoldering target in the sizzling debate over whether to clamp down further on air pollution.
And while backyard chefs may pay little attention to statistics on smog-causing ozone and fine particulates, they perk right up when someone suggests they may lose their outdoor grills.
And that's what some groups have been doing in radio ads, press releases and newspaper commentaries.
Only last week, the Michigan House unanimously approved a resolution telling federal bureaucrats to clean the air but "not restrict the use of barbecue grills."
"Some federal officials are proposing restrictions on the use of charcoal and gas grills used for cooking. ... (this) is an overreaction," the Michigan lawmakers fumed.
No such attack on barbecuing actually is being considered by the Environmental Protection Agency, or by any other federal officials as far as anybody can determine. The proposal going through final review at the EPA and White House calls for further reducing the amount of ozone-causing chemicals in the air and for the first time regulating microscopic soot, much of which comes from burning.
States would have to develop pollution control plans to meet the new standards, in many cases over a 10- to 15-year period. Factories, industrial plants and coal-burning electric power plants as well as automobiles spew millions of tons of such pollution into the air.
And some also comes from burning charcoal and the lighting fluids used in home barbecues.
But will millions of backyard chefs be unilaterally sent back into the kitchen to meet the federal air-quality standard? Senior EPA officials, health experts, and many state environmental control officials say no way. That would amount to committing political hara-kiri over a hibachi, they suggest.
"EPA is not contemplating nor have we ever contemplated restrictions on the use of charcoal and gas grills," EPA Administrator Carol Browner wrote a congressman recently, suggesting any state or local attempt to curb barbecues would "defy common sense."
State officials also have little desire to take on the barbecue crowd.
"There are a lot of things we would look at before we went to that extent," concedes Kenneth Silfven, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. "Nobody's out there eyeing the backyard grill."
"There are certainly a lot of things you could do that would reduce emissions a lot more than (curbing) barbecues," agrees Bill Kelly, a spokesman for California's South Coast Air Quality Management District, which has some of the country's stiffest air-pollution controls.
But he says he's not surprised the barbecue issue is being raised. "It captivates the imagination. It connotes Big Brotherism," he says.
California often is cited as the state where the barbecue already is under fire.
Seven years ago new standards were imposed on charcoal-lighting products to reduce smog-causing volatile organic compounds in the Los Angeles basin. But Kelly said manufacturers met the new standards quickly "and the area didn't miss a beat ... with people still barbecuing."
Environmentalists say the barbecue talk amounts to a scare tactic that diverts attention from industrial polluters, which release nearly 23 million tons of volatile organic compounds annually. All the barbecues in the land release a mere 14,500 tons each year, according to EPA figures.
It would require "every household in America barbecuing 14 hours a day, every day of the year" to foul the air as much as industry and automobiles, according to the Washington-based Environmental Information Center.
But that doesn't mean barbecues are protected, argues Wayne Brough, director of research for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a pro-business, smaller-government group that has run radio ads suggesting the EPA rule might lead to a ban on not only barbecues, but also fireworks on the Fourth of July.
"If jurisdictions don't have enough other sources of ... (pollution) to reduce then who's to say barbecues won't be on some bureaucrat's list of banned behavior," Brough says.