Road emissions tests called failures

March 23, 1995|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- New data from a California study show that attempting to reduce smog by measuring auto emissions from the roadside is a "miserable failure," an air pollution consultant said yesterday.

The reliability of this "remote sensing" method is a crucial issue in Congress and in Maryland, as critics of centralized motor vehicle inspection programs such as Maryland's have touted roadside emissions monitors as an effective and less intrusive way of reducing air pollution.

A two-month experiment in the Sacramento area with remote sensors was designed to test 750,000 vehicles. However, fewer than 50 percent were even scanned by the roadside monitors. And more than half of the vehicles recorded as being in violation were not actually polluting at all, said Thomas C. Austin, a senior partner of Sierra Research, the consulting company that reviewed the test data.

A House Commerce subcommittee was to begin two days of hearings today on the effectiveness of vehicle inspection and maintenance programs. Environmentalists charged yesterday that the hearings are stacked with advocates of remote sensing and critics of centralized emissions testing. Mr. Austin, former director of the California Air Resources Board, is not among those invited to testify.

A spokesman for California's Inspection and Maintenance Review Committee, appointed by that state's legislature to look at alternatives to centralized emissions testing, said it has not finished evaluating the results of the Sacramento study.

But Buzz Breedlove, the panel's executive officer, said flaws in the Sacramento experiment made it a poor test for remote sensing, and he asserted that other studies have shown the method does catch dirty cars and trucks.

The committee issued its own report yesterday disputing the Environmental Protection Agency's claims that auto mechanics are less reliable at detecting emissions problems than are state-run testing stations like Maryland's. The committee was especially critical of an EPA audit of Maryland's old inspections, which found that none of them was conducted improperly.

Eugene J. Tierney, EPA's chief of inspection and maintenance programs, said that while no emissions testing, even Maryland's, has been perfect, state-run inspection stations have a much better record than auto shops.

Mr. Austin asserted that the California study actually demonstrated the effectiveness of inspections using dynamometers, treadmill-like devices that measure tailpipe exhaust while a vehicle's wheels spin. The California study found that either of two dynamometer tests -- the one advocated by EPA and initially planned in Maryland, or another, simpler check -- caught almost all the vehicles that needed to be repaired.

Remote sensing, by comparison, caught only about 10 percent of the excess emissions, Mr. Martin said.

"In the wake of congressional action to halt or scale back enhanced emissions testing for cars -- testing we know works when it comes to producing cleaner air -- the new California data is very important," said Gary Huggins, executive vice president of the Coalition for Safer, Cleaner Vehicles. The group includes environmental and health groups, as well as some emissions testing contractors.

The House last week voted to bar the EPA from spending any money for the next six months to require enhanced emissions testing in smoggy states such as Maryland, to give Congress time to decide whether to change the Clean Air Act.

Mr. Martin said the California study was part of a $12 million pilot project ordered by that state's legislature to help it in adopting a hybrid inspection program, which would test some vehicles at state-run stations and others at auto shops. About 600 vehicles in a Los Angeles suburb were checked using the two different dynamometer tests. Another 2,500 vehicles in the Sacramento area were tested using both remote sensing and dynamometers.

California, which has the worst smog in the nation, has often led in devising pollution controls. It was the first to challenge EPA's insistence that states with the most smog upgrade their vehicle inspections and conduct them at state-run testing stations.

Testing is now done by auto shops and service stations in California, and in many other states, and those industries oppose centralized inspections.

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