EPA Backs Down on Emission Tests

Triumph for Common Sense, or Hollow Victory?

By Aarne Frobom

Late last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would not punish states that didn t adopt the complicated auto emissions test called IM-240. States can now stop building test stations and sniffing cars exhausts. The likely death of IM-240 is a victory for motorists over radical clean-air laws, but it will take more work to hold on to our gains.

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 required cities with high pollution levels to test cars on an expensive dynamometer, and to prohibit garages from testing cars. Most states complied, but as the start of testing drew closer, at least seven state legislatures or governors took action to thwart IM-240. New York cancelled its testing contract. Maine began testing cars, but then suspended the program. California never enacted it at all. It was a glorious reassertion of states rights. An EPA official quoted in the New York Times called it equivalent to an act of civil disobedience.

No kidding. But punishing the protesters is politically unthinkable. So EPA Administrator Carol Browner has announced that states need not begin testing cars this January after all, and many more states will probably suspend their IM-240 programs. Then what? Are motorists home free?

Maybe, maybe not. EPA knows that insistence on IM-240 might lead the Republican Congress to reopen the Clean Air Act, something EPA and environmental lobbies want desperately to avoid. Any new amendments would be less powerful than the 1990 act. If EPA succeeds in keeping the 1990 law in force, then the provisions mandating emission testing will remain on the books, waiting for a more agreeable Congress.

EPA will still have the power to mandate transportation control measures. This totalitarian- sounding program can include: mandatory car pools, additional transit service, mandatory no- drive days, gas-station vapor-recovery hoses, and anything else EPA feels like regulating.

Most importantly, the law still requires states to reduce pollution by 15 percent from 1990 levels.* Even though IM-240 car-testing is no longer being ordered by EPA, penalties will be imposed if the 15 percent reduction isn t achieved. States may abandon IM-240, but find that they have to order factories to be expensively modified, or order workers into car pools. And in any state failing to measure up, EPA can order anything it wants, including IM-240 and random anti-tampering roadblocks. And, even if EPA doesn t act by itself, lawsuits by environmental activists might force EPA to comply with the law, something EPA probably wouldn t object to very much. Of course, these Draconian edicts wouldn t be any more palatable to states than IM-1240. So maybe we ll see the Clean Air Act amended again, this time rationally. And maybe we should help the process along, by urging our (new) representatives to reopen the Clean Air Act, and get rid of IM-240 for good.

*This is 15% on top of other reductions resulting from new technology, such as cleaner cars.

Source: March/April 1995 NMA News

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