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Fit to breathe?

photo
[Times files, 1999: Douglas R. Clifford]
The lung association gave a D grade to air quality in Pinellas County, home to such crowded roads as U.S. 19, shown here near Coachman Road.

Poor air quality fuels an American Lung Association drive to retain auto emissions testing.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2000


Tampa Bay's air is bad, says the American Lung Association. How bad? In a national report card on air quality issued this week, the association gave Hillsborough County an F and Pinellas County a D.

Leaders of the association's local chapter believe ending auto emissions testing would make the Tampa Bay area's bad air worse. So they have organized a lobbying effort to persuade Gov. Jeb Bush to keep the controversial tailpipe tests alive in Florida.

Click here for a map of Florida’s air quality ratings

Interested?
To view the American Lung Association's "State of the Air: 2000" report on the Internet, click here

The group has recruited its officers and staff to call on Bush to veto a bill that would end emissions testing. The association has also encouraged people suffering from bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory diseases to contact the governor and urge him to reject the bill to protect their health.

"The emissions testing program, though flawed, is nevertheless an effective way to reduce air pollution," said John Chancellor, chief executive officer of the association's Gulfcoast Florida chapter. The $10 annual fee "is not a lot to pay to make sure we have these polluting vehicles off the road."

The governor is "still reviewing the final language in the bill" and still has not decided whether he will sign it or veto it, spokeswoman Liz Hirst said Thursday. Bush said this week he is particularly concerned because another provision in the same bill does away with local mining regulations on dynamite blasting, "and I have not sorted out the impact of that."

Gauging the success of the association's lobbying effort is difficult because the governor's office no longer keeps a tally of how many calls and e-mails Bush receives on an issue. Bush has received 10 letters urging him to sign the bill -- mostly arguing that it is unfair to single out certain counties for testing -- and 17 asking him to veto it.

"Eliminating the testing will substantially increase atmospheric pollution which has a severe effect on those people like me with potentially fatal respiratory problems," wrote Charles E. Edwards of St. Petersburg.

Meanwhile, another group sat down this week to discuss what to do should Bush sign the bill the Legislature passed and end the tests June 30. The Suncoast Health Council, a non-profit community health planning organization, talked about how to measure the increase in respiratory diseases they expect to occur.

"As the air quality continues to erode, the number of folks with chronic bronchitis and other lung disorders would increase," said executive director Elizabeth Rugg. Armed with two to four years of medical data, "we might go back to the Legislature and ask them to rethink that idea."

Asthma cases in particular already have been on the upswing across the country in recent years, and environmental groups blame air pollution. The number of people with asthma in America increased by 75 percent between 1980 and 1994. Among children under age 4, asthma cases increased by 160 percent.

In compiling its first-ever report card on the nation's air quality, the American Lung Association looked at the number of children and adults with asthma and other respiratory ailments in each county in all 50 states. It rated each county based on the number of bad air days those people experienced from 1996 to 1998.

Hillsborough County, which had 20 bad air days during that time period, got an F. Pinellas, with seven bad air days, fared only slightly better with a D.

Two other Florida counties where emissions tests are mandatory were also rated F: Duval and Miami-Dade counties. But two others fared better: Palm Beach got a B, Broward a C.

Several Florida counties that have no emissions tests also flunked: Polk, Orange, Osceola and Escambia. The only Florida county that rated an A is the one where Bush now lives: Leon County, which includes the state capital of Tallahassee.

Emissions tests have been required in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Duval, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties since they flunked federal air standards in the 1980s. Last year, state officials said the air quality has improved sufficiently everywhere but Tampa Bay and that the state could end the tests in four of the counties. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tentatively given its blessing.

But the Legislature voted to end testing in all six counties -- Pinellas and Hillsborough included -- without getting EPA's permission, or the governor's.

"We tried to work out a compromise, and that kind of was rejected as well," Bush said.

State officials have said repeatedly that about half of the Tampa Bay area's pollution comes from the tailpipes of poorly tuned cars. 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.

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

-- Times Political Editor Tim Nickens contributed to this report.

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