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Bush ends emissions tests

Hillsborough and Pinellas residents no longer will need the tests to renew auto tags after June 30. Some worry that pollution will rise to dangerous levels.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 15, 2000


Saying he wanted to save Florida motorists money, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a controversial bill Wednesday that ends auto emissions testing in Pinellas, Hillsborough and four other counties as of June 30.

Although the program was credited with removing more than 60,000 tons of pollutants from the Tampa Bay area's air last year, Bush called it "an unnecessary burden to motorists." He said ending the $10-a-year tailpipe tests will save car owners $52-million.

By signing the bill, Bush made Florida the first state to end an emissions testing program without prior approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Local officials have said they fear the EPA will cut off millions of dollars in federal highway funds. Bush insisted that is unlikely.

When she heard Bush had signed the bill, Mette Nelson, who suffers from asthma, had just enough breath to curse the governor. One of the few printable names she called him was "idiot."

The Seminole resident predicted the end of the testing will make breathing far more difficult for her and others with respiratory ailments, particularly children and the elderly.

"I don't think he realizes the implications of what he's done," said Nelson, 33. "What is $10 a year out of your pocket when it's going to cost thousands and thousands to put people in the hospital because of the pollution? A mere $10 test can save so much."

Patricia Maguire, 88, of St. Petersburg, who has respiratory trouble, called Bush's action "ill-advised."

Peter Hessling, who is in charge of air quality for Pinellas County, said there will be no detectable change overnight but "over time, say over the next year or so, as the vehicles that would have failed the test don't get fixed and cleaned up, they will be emitting that much more pollution into the air."

State lawmakers, some of whom have condemned the testing program as a government boondoggle, voted to end the tests in the waning hours of the legislative session last month. Tucked inside a bill labeled "Transportation Rule Making Authority," it easily cleared both houses, with Tampa Bay lawmakers among those voting for it.

Bush had urged lawmakers to allow the tests to continue in the Tampa Bay area because its air still rates among the worst in the state. Jay Gordon, who owns one of the testing companies, said state officials told him Bush would veto any bill that tried to end the tests in Pinellas and Hillsborough.

But once the bill passed, Bush made it clear he wanted to sign it. He held off until Wednesday because it also included a provision, slipped in without the knowledge of most lawmakers, pre-empting local regulation on the use of explosives in commercial rock-mining operations.

Bush said the mining industry has agreed to follow local regulations this year, giving legislators a chance to readdress the problem in 2001. That cleared the way for him to sign the bill.

Bush said he is sure the EPA will approve ending the tailpipe tests. "If they ask Floridians I think they will find that Floridians in a great majority say, "Enough of this, we don't want to do it anymore, it seems unnecessary.' And I'm supportive of that position."

EPA officials have already asked people in the four other counties -- Duval, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade -- whether the state should end testing. Those are the only counties where the federal agency has given even tentative approval to end the program, because the air in those counties has improved.

Of 700 responses so far, more than 95 percent were from people opposed to ending the emissions tests. Such strong opposition prompted federal officials to hold off giving final approval in those four counties. Instead they have scheduled a rare public hearing for July 20 in West Palm Beach.

When asked about the EPA's apparent change-of-heart this week, Bush said, "I'm not sure what to say and think about that."

Even if the EPA won't approve ending the testing program, starting it up again will be virtually impossible, said Gordon, the company owner. The testing sites will be sold and the equipment either put into storage or shipped to one of the more than 30 other states that still have testing programs.

To see Bush kill the program without EPA approval, Gordon said, is "very frustrating, but it's politics."

The emissions tests, begun in 1991, were part of an EPA-approved program to clean the air in counties that flunked federal standards in the 1980s. To avoid running afoul of the EPA, the state must now explain how it will clean Tampa Bay's air without them.

Bush and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs said that should not be a problem, considering the massive reductions in pollution expected from an EPA-mandated cleanup at Tampa Electric's two coal-fired power plants in Tampa and Apollo Beach.

However, those reductions will not begin until 2004 and will not be fully realized until 2010. EPA officials have said they want to see a replacement for the tailpipe tests now, not four years from now.

Gordon suggested the state may be forced to turn to draconian measures employed in other states, such as banning gas-powered lawn trimmers and edgers, or requiring gas stations to sell reconstituted fuel costing about 30 cents more per gallon.

Another option is squeezing reductions out of the more than 380 companies in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties with permits to pollute the air. They include everything from Florida Power's generating stations to the St. Petersburg Times printing plant to companies that make reflective solar window films.

But Hessling, the Pinellas air quality chief, said, "There's not a whole lot out there to really target." Testing cars made sense because they produce about half the air pollution, he said, but now the governor and Legislature have put them off limits.

Florida's emission tests check to see if cars are so poorly tuned that they put out excessive amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, also known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs.

Last year about 450 people working for Gordon-Darby and Envirotest administered the tests to 5.3-million vehicles in the six counties. Those people will now be unemployed The 36 state employees who administered the program will be transferred to other positions dealing with drivers' licenses or law enforcement.

In recent years, about 6 percent of the cars that were tested flunked because they produced too much carbon monoxide or VOCs. Usually all they needed was a tune-up.

But some cars were beyond repair. State officials say that last year the tests took more than 25,000 clunkers off the road because they could not pass. Now those cars can hit the road again.

-- Times staff writers Lucy Morgan, Shelby Oppel and William Yardley contributed to this report.

The end of exhaust tests

As of June 30, emissions tests no longer will be required in Florida. Since 1991, the $10 tests have been mandatory for license plate renewal in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Duval, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Motorists whose tags expire this month still must get an emissions test, or they cannot renew their tags.

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