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Isn't clean air worth a few bucks, minutes?

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By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 7, 2000


It has been a pain in the neck, for those of us who live in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, to get our cars' emissions inspected.

It is not fair. Big industry pumps out half or more of the bad stuff in the air, but we little guys pay the price.

We haven't been able just to mail in our car registration. We've had to go to one of those stations and pay them $10 to stick a sensor up our tailpipes.

What a pain.

And yet . . .

And yet these inspections still do some good. Not as much as they should, but enough to make a difference.

So, as much as we do not like them, we ought to keep them. Here is why.

The federal limit on ozone is 85 parts per billion. The average level in Hillsborough County for the past three years has been . . . 85 parts per billion.

The Pinellas level has been 82 parts per billion.

It would take just a nudge to send us over the limit. In that case, the feds could start cutting our highway funds, or impose other punishments -- also covering neighboring counties such as Pasco, Manatee and Polk.

Besides, it is just plain unhealthy. Little kids, the elderly and asthmatics suffer first, warning the rest of us. Ozone is a factor in many hospital admissions.

Florida's emissions inspection program has made a difference. In our two counties, inspections have reduced emissions of carbon monoxide by 18 percent and hydrocarbons by 13 percent. That is a decent piece of work, since cars account for about half of those pollutants going into the air.

So, why is there now talk of ending these inspections?

Because the Legislature already has voted to kill them, effective July 1.

Inspections were already going to be abolished in the other four counties covered -- Broward, Dade, Duval, Palm Beach -- because their air quality had improved. Tampa Bay's air quality had not, but that did not stop the politicians from pandering to us lazy voters.

"How can I explain to my constituents why they have to go through these tests?" asked state Sen. James Hargrett, D-Tampa.

State Rep. John Morroni, R-Clearwater, called inspections "a tax on my constituents' money and time without providing any measurable air quality improvement." (By the way, Morroni is running for the Pinellas County Commission this year.)

Yet Hargrett, Morroni and the rest of the Legislature know perfectly well that the tests did not go far enough. The worst villain in auto emissions is nitrogen oxide, or NOx, but lawmakers refused to add that to the inspection requirements. Then they killed the whole program for being ineffective.

It is up to Gov. Jeb Bush whether to veto the Legislature's decision. Typically, the Legislature has made it harder by tying in other stuff. Oddly enough, the bill on inspections also deals with local regulation of blasting at rock mines.

Bush cannot keep inspections in Pinellas and Hillsborough and end them in the other four counties. He cannot rewrite the act of the Legislature, only veto it or let it become law.

Morroni and others who voted to kill inspections say that overall pollution will still decrease, because of a settlement struck between the feds and Tampa Electric Co., one of the biggest polluters. Even if so, that deal will take years to realize -- it is like saying, "I will eat more pie today because I plan to exercise in a couple of years."

Every little bit helps. More than 27,000 high-polluting cars were removed from Florida's highways last year. Tons of pollutants are not getting spewed forth each day. The inspection requirement already has been reduced to every other year, and not at all during the first three years of a new car's life.

If, after all that, we still are too sorry to spend a few minutes and a few bucks every two years for better air, then we deserve to choke.

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