Bert Caldwell: Emissions testing a clear success

Every year about 1 million Washington drivers pull their cars or trucks into an emissions testing station, fork over $15, and drive off with a clean bill of health. For the vehicle, that is. Most of them.

Spokane residents have been going through the drill since July 1, 1985, when the first of two local test locations opened at 920 N. Nevada St. The area had been repeatedly violating U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards, particularly for carbon monoxide. The city and county had sued to block testing, but lost in U.S. District Court. Also, Washington faced the loss of federal highway dollars if Spokane did not clean up its air.

There was also the threat that, should vehicle testing not proceed, the burden of cleaning up local air would fall entirely on industry. In the mid-1980s, with the economy stagnant, that was an unacceptable risk. Officials relented, and the testing began.

The results have been breathmaking.

Abetted by better engine technology and oxygenated fuel – no longer required – Spokane has not violated air quality standards for four years. If the county can remain in compliance for six more years, the emissions testing stations can be closed and a less onerous way of assuring blue skies implemented, says Ken Gamble, the testing program manager in Eastern Washington who has been involved since its outset.

“The results are we are in attainment, and in a few years we will be gone,” he says, although the EPA requires some type of compliance effort remain ongoing until 2020.

Gamble is one of only two Department of Ecology officials in Eastern Washington responsible for testing oversight. There were six when the program began. Spokane has the only two testing stations east of the Cascade Mountains. The 14 others are in Vancouver or the Puget Sound area.

Program costs are paid out of the state general fund, which collects $3.80 out of each $15 test fee. For 2006, the state share was $3.6 million. The rest is retained by the contractor, Aaplus Technology, a company based in Madrid, Spain, with a U.S. headquarters in Chicago. Aaplus also does the testing for Connecticut, Massachusetts and Georgia.

Security is extraordinary. To log into the computer system, employees must scan their fingerprints (in Connecticut, identities are confirmed using iris scans).

All cars and trucks less than 25 years old must be tested every other year, with a five-year bye for new vehicles. Gamble says as much as 20 percent of vehicles failed when testing began, but the rate has declined to less than 10 percent as emissions-control technology improved.

Officials had originally assumed that most vehicles would be off the road after about 110,000 miles, he notes. Now, that’s about when long use starts to gum up the systems on new cars, which will likely remain drivable for another 100,000 miles.

Vehicles that fail the test can be taken to an approved shop for appropriate diagnostics and repairs, then retested once at no additional expense.

Low-income drivers in Spokane County who need their vehicles but cannot afford repairs are eligible for the Vehicle Emission Repair Program, a joint venture of the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency, Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs and DOE. If they meet income guidelines, drivers can receive up to $500 for repairs. More than 1,100 vehicles have been helped by VERP, which is funded out of extra money designated for bringing school busses into compliance.

Gamble says VERP has been extremely successful. Cleanup program efficiency is calculated in terms of dollars per ton of pollution eliminated. The benchmark is $5,000 a ton. The figure for VERP is $1,200 a ton.

If testing has been a biannual irritant for drivers, they at least have the prospect the program will sunset in five years. And the certainty, thanks to it and other pollution-control programs, they will see future sunsets a lot more clearly.

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