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Road Worrier: NC air quality agency wants to reduce auto emissions tests

Tony Jones conducts an auto inspection at Peace Street Inspection Center in Raleigh.
Tony Jones conducts an auto inspection at Peace Street Inspection Center in Raleigh. 2009 News & Observer file photo

North Carolina legislators have reduced the number of cars that must undergo an emissions inspection every year, and state environmental officials say they can cut back even more without making the air unhealthy.

Under a 2012 law that took effect last week, the emissions test is no longer required for the newest cars – those less than three model years old and with less than 70,000 miles on the odometer.

Also last week, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said North Carolina should end emissions testing altogether in 27 to 31 of the 48 counties where it is required now. The proposed change, starting as soon as January 2016, would eliminate the required inspection for more than 1.4 million cars and trucks, out of 5.4 million that get the emissions test each year.

“North Carolina’s air quality has improved significantly since emissions testing requirements were expanded for motor vehicles in the early 2000s,” DENR Secretary Donald R. van der Vaart said in a news release. “We studied the air quality improvements ... and concluded that we could eliminate emissions testing for motor vehicles in numerous counties without harming air quality or violating federal standards.”

Environmental advocates argued against moving quickly to cut back on emissions tests.

“Our recommendation is just to proceed cautiously,” Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, said.

North Carolina is one of 32 states where emissions tests are required for some cars. Until this month, it was among the few that did not exempt newer cars – which are the ones least likely to flunk the test. Vehicles due in 2015 for a safety inspection now can skip the emissions test (a $16.40 saving for the driver) if the model year is 2013 or newer, and if the car hasn’t passed the 70,000-mile mark.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the exemption for newer cars. Safety inspections are still required for all vehicles in every county, at a cost of $13.60.

While most of the state’s metropolitan areas were in violation of ozone and other air quality standards when the state began extending inspections to 48 counties, all are in compliance today, said Mike Abraczinskas, DENR’s deputy air quality director.

The new DENR study, requested by the legislature, calculates that the state would remain in compliance after trimming the list of counties – and even after an announcement, expected by October, that the EPA will move to a more strict standard for ozone pollution. EPA is considering two different standards.

Impact in the Triangle

DENR’s proposed list would continue emissions tests in the busiest urban counties, including Wake, Johnston and Durham. In the Triangle region, tests would no longer be required in four counties: Chatham, Franklin, Harnett and Lee.

Orange and Granville are among four counties that also would have to continue testing only if the new EPA ozone air standard is set at 65 parts per billion; the counties would be removed from testing if EPA allows a less rigorous standard of 70 ppb, DENR said.

If the EPA and the legislature agree, these cuts would end the tests in counties where the Division of Motor Vehicles administered 1.4 million to 1.7 million emissions inspections last year.

The DENR study said American car emissions will be significantly cleaner after 2018 after the EPA implements new rules to raise emission standards and reduce the sulfur content of gasoline.

But Terry Lansdell, program director for Charlotte-based Clean Air Carolina, said DENR was wrong to count on new emission rules that won’t affect cars on the road now.

“Even short-term exposure to the airborne particles in vehicle exhaust can aggravate asthma, heart and lung diseases and diabetes,” Lansdell said. “Emissions testing of vehicles that are currently on the road is especially important to protect the health of citizens with these conditions.”

Few failures

Statewide, DMV reported that an average 51,000 vehicles flunked the test over the past three years – a failure rate of about 1 percent. Failure means that the car’s onboard diagnostic computer shows a malfunction in the catalytic converter, oxygen sensors or other pollution equipment that must be repaired.

“These days those failures are happening a lot less frequently,” Abraczinskas said. “The emission controls on the vehicles are lasting longer and are less prone to malfunction.”

The DENR proposal to exempt dozens of counties could find favor among legislators. In anticipation of the new report, a House committee last week postponed action on one bill to remove a handful of counties from the requirement for emissions tests.