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Bill ends exhaust tests

The plan ends emissions testing in Pinellas, Hillsborough and four other counties, but the tradeoff may be millions lost in federal aid.

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By TIM NICKENS and CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Motor vehicle emissions testing would end June 30 in Pinellas, Hillsborough and four other Florida counties under a bill approved Friday by the Legislature.

Lawmakers voted to end the tests after nine years even though Tampa Bay officials have warned that such a move may cost the bay area millions of dollars in federal aid.

The state now will have to convince the Environmental Protection Agency that Tampa Bay's polluted air can be cleaned up without continuing the tailpipe testing program.

"I believe the EPA will be compelled to look at that rather onerously," Peter Hessling, who runs Pinellas County's air quality program, said Friday night. But the state's top environmental regulator said he was confident his agency could avoid any confrontation with the EPA.

What convinced at least one Tampa Bay lawmaker to vote to eliminate the tests was their inconvenience. Rep. John Morroni, R-Clearwater, said he spent half a day recently getting his two cars inspected and the tags renewed.

"It wasn't fun," Morroni said. He said he has heard similar complaints from his constituents. "If there is one thing people talk with us about besides lottery money, it's auto emissions."

Currently, the $10 emissions tests are required annually for every motorist in six Florida counties that flunked federal air quality standards in the late 1980s: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval and Palm Beach counties.

The annual cost savings to taxpayers statewide if Gov. Jeb Bush approves the plan as expected: $42-million.

Florida has conducted the tests since 1991. If the Legislature hadn't killed the tests, they would have been changed to once every two years for older cars under a law passed last year.

An amendment ending the testing was tacked onto a transportation bill package Friday in the House. It was one of the final bills approved by the Senate before adjournment.

Rep. Rudy Bradley, R-St. Petersburg, said he supported canceling the tests because, although he wants clean air, he thinks there are other ways to get it.

"If we look at where the pollution in Tampa Bay is originating, it isn't from autos," Bradley said. "We need to make sure we do what we need to take care of the environment, but I don't think the testing was serving any purpose."

Actually, state officials have said repeatedly that about half of the Tampa Bay area's pollution comes from the tailpipes of poorly tuned cars crisscrossing highways and bridges. The rest spews from industrial smokestacks such as the coal-burning power plants owned by Tampa Electric Co.

TECO recently cut a deal with the EPA to clean up those emissions starting in 2003. David Struhs, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said pollution cuts at the TECO plant, the gradual phase-in of low-sulphur fuels and tighter controls on sport utility vehicles -- all federal initiatives -- would help the region's air quality.

"You put all those things together, and we are in striking distance for the Tampa Bay area to meet air quality standards," Struhs said. "I think if we are smart we can make it happen."

However, Hessling pointed out that, while the emissions testing program will end this summer, the TECO cleanup is three years away. EPA officials are going to wonder how the state is going to replace the tailpipe tests immediately, not three years from now, he said.

"Relying on the TECO settlement is jumping the gun, because that's not going to start soon enough," Hessling said.

EPA officials said this spring they would not cut off federal highway funding or impose other sanctions to punish Pinellas and Hillsborough counties -- as the federal agency has done in Atlanta -- if Florida comes up with an immediate alternative to vehicle testing. For instance, the state could force other industrial plants besides TECO to curtail their emissions.

The job of coming up with those alternatives will fall on the shoulders of Howard Rhodes, who runs DEP's statewide air quality program. He was surprised to learn of the Legislature's move Friday night, and said he could not comment on how he will deal with such a radical change.

"Well, that's interesting," Rhodes said. "If the Legislature has abolished it, they've abolished it, and then we go from there."

Florida's tests check to see if cars are so poorly tuned that they put out excessive amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.

On sunny days, hydrocarbons combine with nitrogen oxide, or NOx for short, to form ozone.

Ozone collects on the moist surfaces of the eyes, nose and mouth, irritating those tissues, then inflames the lungs. It can lead to sore throats, chest pains, coughing and headaches, and particularly afflicts children and the elderly. It also settles into rivers and bays, polluting the water, and harms plant life.

In recent years, Florida's air quality has gotten worse, primarily because of rising levels of NOx from increased traffic on the state's highways.

Yet Florida has never tested autos for NOx emissions. The rising level of NOx is such a danger in the Tampa Bay area and the Panhandle city of Pensacola that the state ought to immediately begin testing cars there for NOx emissions, according to a consultant who studied the emissions testing system for the state last year. That recommendation was ignored by state lawmakers.

Though the air in the Tampa Bay area and Pensacola has gotten worse, four Florida counties where emissions testing is required have improved their air quality. Last year state officials asked the EPA for permission to end testing there, and EPA officials tentatively agreed. They are taking comments on that plan until May 17.

Some Tampa Bay legislators were determined to avoid any deal that left Pinellas and Hillsborough the only counties still saddled with the tailpipe tests. They banded together with lawmakers from other parts of Florida, some of whom think air pollution is a hoax and the testing program nothing but a government boondoggle.

-- Staff Writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this report.

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