Minnesota Bucks Trend in Voting To End Emissions Testing
By Bair S Walker , Senior Writer
WASHINGTON - A recent Minnesota battle illustrates the tensions that surface when states maintain vehicle emissions testing programs. The Minnesota Legislature voted to kill an eight-year-old testing program affecting 1 million vehicles in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Foes claimed it was too expensive to administer and inconvenienced Gopher State motorists.
Advocates countered that no amount of money or aggravation outweighs the importance of having clean air, but their arguments failed to sway the debate after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed Twin Cities carbon monoxide levels to be acceptable.
State and local governments that fail to meet EPA air quality guidelines risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal highway funding.
Nationwide, 36 states require cars and light trucks to be periodically inspected, according to the Manufacturers of Emission Controls Association. On one end of the spectrum are Maine, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Vermont, which rely on visual inspections, MECA says.
California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah do tailpipe testing for vehicles that are idling, or have their accelerators pushed down to maintain a steady rpm.
California, which suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the country, has more stringent air quality standards than those required by the EPA, according to Sierra Club spokeswoman Ann Meznacoff. Auto manufacturers must modify the pollution control equipment on their vehicles to sell in California.
Following California's lead, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont and Maine have also established air pollution levels higher than those called for by the EPA, Meznacoff says.
Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin all have state-of-the-art testing technology. Those states boast of inspection and maintenance facilities that call for cars to be placed on a treadmill and tested over a range of engine rpms for 240 seconds.
These so-called IM240 facilities cost the states that operate them tens of millions of dollars every year.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has nine IM240 facilities, a number that's shrinking to zero next year, to the disgust of state Sen. Ellen Anderson.
"The strongest argument I hear is, 'its just inconvenient'" says Anderson, who last month fought a losing battle to keep the program, which costs motorist $8 per inspection. "That's not a very strong argument for something that has such a significant impact. I think it's one of those easy political votes, because it's something that people gripe about."
Minnesota Rep. Barbara Haake (pronounced hockey), who introduced the bill to kill the Twin Cities emissions testing program, called it "another infringement by the government on your ability to get from Point A to Point B."
Haake notes that "an automobile can go in a vehicle testing station and maybe it won't pass, and then it can go around the block and then it will pass."
Environmentalist Jayne Mardock admits vehicle emissions testing isn't foolproof. "You think that you're going to get all these gross polluters, but a lot of times they get their cars cleaned up two weeks before they get the test," says Mardock, director of the non-profit Clean Air Network.
Emissions testing hasn't been as productive as some may have hoped, she notes, "but no program is a panacea."
Indeed, North Carolina has embarked on a clean-air push that relies heavily on vehicle exhaust testing to accomplish its goal.
Two weeks ago, North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt hosted a clean air summit that included seven other regional states. Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist and Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes were present, as were representatives from South Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Alabama in Asheville, N.C.
Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt , who traveled to Asheville, N.C., as a guest speaker, told of a cooperative effort between Utah and other states to combat air pollution at the Grand Canyon, in Arizona.
"Air pollution doesn't respect state boundaries," Hunt said. "All of us represented here today are part of the problem and can be part of the solution." Hunt announced plans to expand and toughen North Carolina vehicle inspections, sell only low-sulfur gasoline and encourage the use of alternative fuel vehicles.
Overall, the war against air pollution is gradually being won. The EPA says levels of carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxides, ozone, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter have steadily decreased between 1988 and 1997.
Anti-pollution technology on cars deserves much of the credit. Today's car's produce 90 percent fewer pollutants than cars did before the 1970s, says the EPA's Martha Casey.
When it comes to vehicles and their contribution to air pollution, the problem lies more with drivers than their cars and light trucks, says Leo Raudys (pronounced rowdees) of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The next big vehicle emissions challenge is "trying to get people to drive less," Raudys says. "What's really driving the smog trend is that everybody is driving so many more miles. It's more a behavioral problem than a technology problem."