Auto emissions tests' expansion, extension sought

January 16, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland's tailpipe exhaust inspection program may soon be expanded to include at least six rural counties and to force owners of failing automobiles to make far more costly repairs.

Legislation expected to be offered Friday by Gov. William Donald Schaefer will extend indefinitely the 7-year-old program, currently set to expire at year's end.

But to comply with the federal Clean Air Act passed by Congress and signed into law last November by President Bush, the state must significantly expand and toughen the program or risk losing millions of dollars in federal highway funds, administration officials said.

"The goal is to make sure people properly maintain and not willfully alter their cars -- that's the federal mandate," said W. Marshall Rickert, administrator of the state Motor Vehicle Administration, which would be given broad authority to make changes in the emissions program.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already identified six Maryland counties that, because of increased population and motor vehicle use, it now considers to be part of larger metropolitan areas where testing should take place.

The counties listed as likely to lose their rural exemptions are Calvert, Charles and Frederick counties as part of the Washington area; the Eastern Shore's Queen Anne's County as part of the Baltimore region; Cecil County as part of the Philadelphia-Wilmington, Del., area; and Western Maryland's Washington County because of Hagerstown's growth.

Allegany County, in Western Maryland, also may be included a part of a metropolitan area formed with Mineral County, W.Va., said Kelly L. Bunker, an environmental scientist with the EPA regional office in Philadelphia.

Motor vehicle emissions are a major source of carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds that can create the polluting gas ozone in the atmosphere, Ms. Bunker said. Like much of the Northeast, the Baltimore-Washington area does not currently comply with federal air pollution standards.

While the EPA is not expected to finalize Clean Air regulations until late this year, some requirements are certain.

The act specifically calls for a fivefold increase in the waiver fee -- the minimum amount motorists with failing vehicles must pay toward repairs if their pollution problem is not

corrected -- from $75 to $450, with an annual adjustment for inflation.

The law also requires that tests be given to all cars built since 1968 -- 1977 was the previous cutoff -- although older cars still face a less stringent emissions test than those built since 1981.

The governor's proposal would continue to mandate inspections every other year. It would give the MVA authority to require a more extensive emissions exam and even to test diesel-powered vehicles if deemed necessary, Mr. Rickert said.

Systems Control Inc. operates 10 inspection stations under a contract with the state that is to expire in December. About 900,000 vehicles are inspected each year.

The law currently applies only in Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Howard, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties and Baltimore City.Car owners pay an $8.50 testing fee at the time of the exam.

The changes in the program are certain to be challenged by rural lawmakers and legislators who have opposed the vehicle emissions program in the past.

The two committees slated to review the legislation, the House Environmental Matters Committee and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, are chaired by residents of Cecil County, one of the subdivisions the EPA wants included in the program.

"This is going to be tough one to explain back home," said Delegate Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil, the House committee's chairman.

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