Friday, June 13, 2003

E-check enemy keeps up heat

OEPA concedes only 9% of tests failed in state

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Anthony Meier tests a tailpipe at the E-check station in West Chester Township this week.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
HAMILTON - Usually placid and low-key, Courtney Combs starts boiling at the mere mention of the name: E-check.

Since its inception, Ohio's auto emissions inspection and maintenance program has been on the Butler County commissioner's hit list. He considers the 7-year-old program a bureaucrats' boondoggle that does nothing but inconvenience motorists while getting into their pockets.

"I just see it as a major rip-off of the citizens of this state," says Combs.

Meanwhile, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency says the program is working, and is considering expanding it from the current 14 Cincinnati-Dayton area and Cleveland-area counties. Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties have E-check in the Tristate. There are vehicle emissions-testing programs in 34 states, including Kentucky, where Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties also have E-check.

Combs is stepping up his crusade, vowing he will keep it up until either environmental regulators provide proof that it is effective, or he helps get E-check killed. He has been insisting that state environmental regulators provide statistics to back up their support of the program.

The Republican has allies, including state Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Mount Lookout, who thinks there will be votes in Columbus to scrap the program when the contract for it expires in 2005.

Combs doesn't have to go far to find Butler County constituents who share his opinion about the auto emissions program.

"I think it's a waste," said Peggy Eckes, 49, of West Chester Township. "I don't think it's doing anything to clean up the air."

Gary Jones, 52, of Fairfield, said he had to take the E-check test twice because an employee at the E-check station had entered the wrong vehicle registration number in the computer.

"I didn't have to pay for the second test," he said. "But it was still an inconvenience. I can't see where the test serves any purpose. It's just another money-getter."

People must pay $19.50 to have their vehicles inspected and certified every two years by E-check. Vehicles more than 25 years old, and vehicles 2 years old and newer that are registered to the original owner, are exempt from E-check.

Ohio receives 81 cents from each $19.50 fee, and Envirotest Systems Corp., the company contracted to conduct the test, keeps the remainder.

Combs, a commissioner for 16 years and former president of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, says other commissioners in E-check counties have encouraged him in his quest to end the auto emissions program. But he's been hampered by his inability to obtain firm evidence that the program isn't working.

"My screaming is heard," Combs says. "But when I have no way to back it up, it just dies."

However, he feels that government regulators should have to prove that it is effective. He recently fired a new round of salvos at the program, challenging the Ohio EPA, which monitors air quality, to show proof that it has significantly reduced air pollution.

"I have never seen a report that directly attributed the success in improving air quality to the E-check program," says Combs, who says automakers get the credit for reducing emissions.

He has badgered the U.S. EPA for statistics, and finally was told that the state agency has that information.

Ohio EPA is gathering the information Combs requested and should have it ready before the end of the month, Christopher Jones, director of Ohio EPA, said in a recent letter to the commissioner.

"We don't have the information at our fingertips because U.S. EPA has recently come out with new software," said Heidi Griesmer, agency spokeswoman. "So we're using the new software, which is more accurate, to get the information."

"We do have statistics that show the program is working," Gries-mer said.

The average vehicle that fails and then passes after making adjustments improves emissions by 77 percent, she said.

Vehicles failed about 9 percent of 1.9 million E-check tests in 2001, according to Ohio EPA's latest annual report.

Ohio EPA says that in 2001, average ozone levels in counties with E-check programs decreased while ozone levels in counties without E-check stayed the same. In response to Combs' request, the agency is compiling statistics for counties in the Cincinnati area with E-check programs.

In 1995, Combs reluctantly voted with the other two Butler County commissioners to accept the E-check program because failure to do so could have resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in federal road construction funds.

At that time, Butler was seeking federal funding to build the Union Centre Boulevard interchange at Interstate 75 and the Michael A. Fox Highway.

"They were holding a gun to our heads," Combs said. "We didn't have any choice."

Ohio and the 14 counties with E-check still face the same federal disincentive.

Steve Rothblatt, chief of the air program's branch for U.S. EPA Region 5 in Chicago, said ending E-check without federal approval would be a violation of the Federal Clean Air Act and could result in the loss of federal highway funds and other sanctions.

"The Clean Air Act requires this program in the Cincinnati area because it is still not attaining clean-air standards," Rothblatt said. "So it would not be an easy matter to remove it."

Fox said he's not surprised that Combs gets so agitated about the program.

"The E-check program would rile up the most complacent person," he said. "E-check is a major inconvenience to motorists and it doesn't clean the air."

Combs himself has had no personal encounters with E-Check that fuel his anger at the program. In fact, he's had no personal encounters with it at all.

Because he replaces his two cars every two years, he's never had to take a car to an E-check station. But he says it isn't necessary to take a car to be tested to doubt the program's effectiveness.

There's been at least one grass-roots effort to scuttle E-check.

In 2001, Tom Hagedorn, an Anderson Township resident, founded a citizens group called End the E-Check. But his group disbanded after about a year.

"Working with an all-volunteer organization, it's pretty difficult to make political change," he said.

"Science says we should be focusing more on smokestacks. Motorists have almost no lobbies in state capitals and Washington, D.C., but smokestack polluters have very effective lobbies. They know that people like me will eventually get tired of hitting my head against the wall and give up," Hagedorn said.

Glen Brand, Midwest representative of the Sierra Club in Cincinnati, said he isn't a big fan of E-check.

"It would be fine to scrap E-check if we would replace it with something else," Brand said. "If they started a new program to clean up dirty coal-fired power plants, we could do away with the E-check program tomorrow."

Combs adds that his opposition to the program doesn't mean he minimizes the importance of clean air.

"We're all concerned about our air quality," he says. "But if we're doing (E-check) as a sham, it's a sham on the public and a sham on our future."

The E-check test

E-check evaluates vehicle emissions to determine the level of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide, the major components in smog or air pollution.

This is what E-check inspectors do when testing your vehicle:

Make sure the vehicle has a gas cap and a catalytic converter. They also look for obvious fluid leaks, bald tires and other safety problems.

Enter the vehicle identification number into the computer so they can see the emission standards for your vehicle.

Drive the vehicle on a treadmill - called a dynamometer - at a steady 25 mph while a probe placed into the tailpipe analyzes the levels of emissions. Vehicles that are too heavy to be driven onto the treadmill are given an alternative idling test.

Remove the gas cap and connect it to a gauge that measures pressure and indicates whether gasoline vapor is escaping from the tank.


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