Emissions test called unreliable New procedure flawed, GAO says

October 28, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

A new auto emissions test that 1.5 million Maryland cars and trucks will have to take every other year is so unreliable and costly that it may undermine the public's support for cleaner air, warns a recent report to Congress.

More than 25 percent of the autos checked with the new test flunked their initial inspection, but passed a second exam even though no repairs were made, according to the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency.

The report's findings suggest serious flaws in the new tailpipe testing procedure chosen by the Environmental Protection Agency to cut smog in seriously polluted areas like Baltimore and Washington.

The test may be unable to catch many "dirty" cars and trucks, even though it will cost more and take longer, the report said. Faulty tests may likewise force motorists with well-maintained vehicles to make unnecessary repairs, which could cost them up to $450 per vehicle.

Maryland officials are now seeking bids for a new emissions inspection system that would use the test criticized by the watchdog agency. State officials said they had not seen the report, which was released late last week.

The EPA released a statement calling the report "inaccurate and misleading," and its officials staunchly defended the proposed new tailpipe tests, saying they will be much more reliable than the emissions inspections now performed in Maryland and elsewhere.

Emission checks now are made while cars and trucks are parked with their engines running. The EPA says that the new tests, in which vehicles are inspected while running on a treadmill-like device, should significantly reduce emissions of harmful air pollutants, including those that form ozone.

Ozone, the chief pollutant in summertime smog, is an invisible gas that can cause breathing problems for many people.

It forms when hydrocarbons released mainly by motor vehicles react under strong sunlight with nitrogen oxides, a gas emitted by cars and trucks, power plants and industrial boilers.

Baltimore has the sixth worst ozone levels of any urban area in the country, and Washington has the 10th worst, according to the EPA. To comply with the 1990 federal Clean Air Act, which requires that unhealthful ozone levels be eliminated, Maryland officials plan to adopt the tougher auto inspection system by January 1995.

The bi-annual emissions checks also will be expanded to six rural counties whose emissions add to the region's smog: Calvert, Cecil, Charles, Frederick, Queen Anne's and Washington.

But Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., who commissioned the GAO report, wrote EPA Administrator William K. Reilly last week to warn that flaws in the government's proposed emissions test "could cause greater public distrust or resentment" of government efforts to control air pollution.

Mr. Dingell is chairman of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

The new tests will cost up to twice the current $8.50 fee, will take about 10 minutes and will be harder to pass, officials say. Motorists whose vehicles fail will have to spend up to $450 on repairs, up from the $75 repair limit now in effect.

State officials say it is unlikely motorists will have to spend that much, but the GAO report warns that cars and trucks failing the exam could be difficult to fix, largely because mechanics may lack the training and equipment needed to diagnose the problems.

Mechanics working on contract for EPA were unable on their first try to fix more than one-third of the cars that had flunked the new, tougher emissions test, the GAO report says.

Also, many repair shops will not be able to tell if they have really fixed a vehicle's emission problems because they cannot afford the testing equipment, which is expected to cost $140,000. Motorists may wind up bouncing back and forth between mechanics and testing stations.

The EPA plans to publish final rules by Nov. 6. The GAO says states should be given until November 1993 to decide what tests to use. The report also calls for possibly letting states use a less costly testing procedure now being developed in California.

But Marshall Rickert, Maryland's motor vehicle administrator, said the state cannot afford to delay its choice of a new emissions test. It could take 18 months or more to build the new inspection stations, he said, and federal rules now require that high-tech exams begin by late 1994.

The "high-tech" inspection, modeled on tests used to rate new car emissions, will be unreliable on only 15 to 20 percent of the vehicles checked, according to Gene Tierney, EPA's inspection chief in Ann Arbor, Mich. The tests now used in Maryland and other states are off at least half the time, he said.

Repair problems should be alleviated by new training programs for mechanics that are already in the works, Mr. Tierney said. Auto shops also should be able to verify their repairs by using less sophisticated, and less costly, testing equipment.

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