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Emissions testing bill passes Senate

By Andy Sher • Updated Apr 24, 2018 at 8:00 AM

NASHVILLE (TNS) – A bill that attempts to end mandatory vehicle emissions testing in Hamilton and five other Tennessee counties passed a final floor vote Monday afternoon in the state Senate.

But while the bill awaits Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature, its stated goal of halting emissions testing on cars and trucks won’t happen overnight.

In fact, it could take three or more years to develop alternatives to the testing program, used to lower air pollution, and also take them to federal regulators and win approval there, according to a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation official.

Final say-so will have to come from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which calls the shots on federal Clean Air Act requirements and the steps needed to cut air pollution levels and ensure continued compliance with air quality standards.

“The bill ends the inspection and maintenance [emissions testing] program in Tennessee if EPA approves,” said Kim Schofinski, a spokeswoman with TDEC, in an email response to Times Free Press inquiries.

She noted TDEC still continues to work on submitting another plan to EPA, based on a 2016 law passed by state lawmakers that sought to exempt new vehicles from the emissions testing.

“TDEC will broaden the scope of its current analysis regarding the impact of legislation enacted by the General Assembly previously to exempt three years or newer motor vehicles on air quality,” Schofinski said. “We anticipate that this analysis should take six months to a year. The steps to be taken after that will be determined by the results of the analysis.”

The “total process to obtain EPA approval could take three years or more depending on many variables, including the speed of federal action,” Schofinski added. “Substitute measures will need to be taken if the analysis demonstrates that the elimination of emissions testing will interfere with air quality.”

Two Hamilton County lawmakers who are leading the charge to end vehicle emissions testing said they remain confident DEC and local officials will be able to develop less intrusive alternatives to vehicle testing if that step becomes necessary.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, said they believe Hamilton, Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties can follow paths blazed by Shelby County to get out of its emissions testing program. Knox County avoided it entirely by restricting truck speeds in a broad area.

Still, Watson said, “I don’t want to mislead the public. You know, it doesn’t happen immediately. There are some contractual things that have to be worked out. I mean, 2019 would be the first time it could actually be repealed or eliminated.”

Moreover, Watson added, “full disclosure and transparency: That’s contingent on TDEC working with locals working with EPA to come up with a replacement program. So that’s why I’ve said this is a repeal and replace [bill]. We’re repealing [testing], but we got to be able to replace it with something. We’ve understood that all along.”

Watson and Carter filed the bill this year after TDEC officials announced last summer that all of Tennessee’s 95 counties are now fully compliant, or in EPA jargon in “100 percent attainment,” on federal ambient air quality requirements for ozone and particulate matter.

Hamilton, Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties all have EPA-approved vehicle emissions testing programs they have used to lower emissions as the state sought to meet federal Clean Air Act provisions mandating safer air quality.

Hamilton County officials initiated the testing program in 2005 to ensure pollution wouldn’t be a problem as the community sought to develop the county’s Enterprise South industrial park and lure a major manufacturer to the site. In 2007, Volkswagen located its lone U.S. auto assembly plant there.

Local officials, as well as TDEC Commissioner Bob Martineau, raised concerns about the bill initially.

“I think they are to the point they understand we have to look at some other options to replace it,” Watson said. “And obviously, we’re going to ask them to look at options that are the least intrusive, the least objectionable that we can find.”

He noted “we’ve done a great job in Hamilton County, obviously, in cleaning up our environment. And no one wants to change that.”

It’s not immediately clear what impact the Tennessee Valley Authority’s move to shut down three of its coal-fired power generating plants in Tennessee and Alabama since 2005 will have. The plants were major polluters.

Watson said that of all the issues he’s dealt with since being elected in the early 2000s, “I would argue that I get more emails and phone calls and letters about this issue than anything. And it’s usually from people saying, ‘I can’t get my car to pass and I don’t have $600 to fix it.’”

“Our argument is this kind of hurts people who can least afford it,” he added.

Seniors and others have complained to the Times Free Press that addressing a check-engine light issue, an automatic failure in the programs, can cost hundreds of dollars, sometimes more. And many dislike testing center lines, as well as the $9 fee.

Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles’ office issues license tags for vehicles that the state said must pass emissions tests before a tag can bought or renewed.

On the office’s website, Knowles has posted a notice in response to many inquiries he’s gotten about the legislation.

“Emission testing remains in effect prior to titling or renewing a vehicle registration until repeal is approved by the United States Environment Protection Agency,” the notice said. “When approval is granted Hamilton County government will be notified. Updates will be posted as they become available.”

Knowles said in an interview his office is required under state law to ensure vehicle owners have the required proof of passing emissions testing before issuing tags.

Over the years, Knowles said, he’s heard heartbreaking stories from people who “tell me they can’t afford to fix their vehicle.” While sympathetic, he said, “I have nothing to do with it. It’s an air pollution program.”

He said he posted the website caution to visitors who are calling to see if they still need to have their vehicles tested now.

The initiative co-sponsored by members of the Wilson County legislative delegation, state Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, and state Rep. Clark Boyd, R-Lebanon, requiring counties to take all necessary steps to end mandatory vehicle emissions testing in Tennessee passed in the House chamber last week.

The bill was approved by a 96-0 vote tally by House members and would apply to residents of Wilson County where emissions testing is still required prior to vehicle registration or renewal.

The 1990 Federal Clean Air Act required the state to develop more restrictive regulations to control air pollution from mobile sources in counties, which were not meeting the Federal Standards for air quality.

 Currently, testing is done on vehicles with a model year of 1975 and newer if they are powered by a gasoline or diesel engine and weigh up to 10,500 pounds. More than 1.5 million vehicles went through emissions testing in Tennessee last year in the six counties where it is required.

“Vehicle emissions testing is a process that creates avoidable stress and financial burdens for our working families,” said Lynn. “House Bill 1782 moves Tennessee away from mandatory vehicle emissions testing which benefits our citizens and doesn’t create any harmful environmental side effects.”

The idea for House Bill 1782 came following a report from the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation released in August that showed all 95 Tennessee counties met federal air quality health standards.

 “Vehicle testing is not only time consuming but seems to disproportionally affect people who can least afford to make repairs to their cars.” said Boyd. “The people of Wilson County have been loud and clear in their support of this legislation to end emissions testing. I have heard them and am proud to be a sponsor of this legislation.”

The bill would require the state to end a state testing contract for Hamilton, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties in 2019 unless the EPA has not acted.

Davidson County has its own contract, which expires in 2021, Watson recalled.

The bill would do away with the $9 testing fee, most of which now goes to the state to pay for the five-county emissions testing contract. But in order to avoid getting slapped with an expenses analysis that might have made the bill harder to pass, it includes a provision allowing county commissions vote to keep a $4 fee on title and tag issuance. Of that, $3 would go into the county’s general fund and $1 to county clerks.

Lebanon Democrat editor Jared Felkins contributed to this report.

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