Would this be grand?
No more E-Check?
Ohio EPA plan hinges on eliminating other sources of air pollution
By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau and Dan Klepal
COLUMBUS - The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday that it's time to end the controversial E-Check tailpipe testing program and replace it at the end of the year with better ways to protect air quality in Southwest Ohio.
The proposal, subject to federal approval, brought smiles to people in line for the air-pollution test.
Carrie Castro, a 32-year-old Mount Adams resident, was at the Beekman Avenue E-Check station Tuesday, trying to get her 1990 Honda to pass the test so she can sell the car.
"I have mixed feelings because I want to do my part for the environment," she said. "But it's a pain to come down here."
More than 2 million drivers will pay $19.50 to get their cars tested this year under a 10-year-old program that Ohio EPA Director Joe Koncelik believes is losing its effectiveness as cars become cleaner.
"We wouldn't be making the recommendation if we didn't think there were reasonable alternatives to the E-Check program," he said of his plan to eliminate the testing for Hamilton, Butler, Warren, Clermont and three counties in the Dayton region.
If the state finds a suitable replacement for E-Check, such as reducing emissions from power plants, environmental groups say they are fine with the change. Businesses are leery of how E-Check alternatives could affect their bottom line.
For several Southwest Ohio lawmakers, the end couldn't come soon enough.
"It's a waste of money, and it doesn't do anything much," Sen. Robert Schuler, R-Sycamore Township, said.
Rep. Tyrone Yates, D-Cincinnati, said too many area motorists perceive the program as a scam, although the Ohio EPA says it is responsible for eliminating 100,000 tons of pollutants from the air each year.
"Drivers aren't quite sure what the E-Checks achieve," he said.
Although the Ohio EPA's plan would end E-Check in the Cincinnati and Dayton regions, it would be expanded for at least two years in seven northeast Ohio counties, where air quality is worse.
The Ohio EPA is proposing to exempt cars newer than 4 years old, up from the current two years.
All 14 counties that must use E-Check are out of compliance with federal rules that limit the amount of ground-level ozone in the air. Pollution coming from vehicle tailpipes, when combined with heat and sunlight on stagnant days, contributes to the creation of ozone.
"E-Check may have had merit 10 years ago when automobiles were less efficient in their exhaust," Rep. Joseph Uecker, R-Loveland, said. "Today's automobiles and fuel are much cleaner."
Of the $19.50 fee for the test, the state gets about 56 cents, with the remainder going to Envirotest Systems Corp.
State officials see a chance to eliminate E-Check because Ohio's contract with Envirotest runs out Dec. 31. State lawmakers must approve any extension of the E-Check program, and the federal EPA must approve any changes.
Environmental groups say they don't care if the flawed E-Check goes or stays, as long as air pollution doesn't get worse.
"It could have been a better program," said Marilyn Wall, conservation chairwoman for the Sierra Club's Ohio Chapter. "But the real question is: Is the air healthy for people? It's not. They need to move aggressively to meet that standard. If they can do it without E-Check, that's fine."
To eliminate E-Check, state lawmakers must replace it with reductions of other sources of air pollution, such as requiring cleaner power and industrial plants, selling cleaner-burning gasoline and incentives for purchases of electric lawn mowers or better gasoline cans.
State legislative leaders Tuesday sounded enthusiastic about the plan.
"E-Check is about as popular as a flat tire for most Ohio motorists," House Speaker Jon Husted, R-Kettering, said. "I can't imagine that any part of the plan, at this point in time, for Southwest Ohio would not be acceptable."
Lawmakers in 2003 tried to exempt more cars from E-Check by attaching the proposal to the transportation budget. But Gov. Bob Taft vetoed the measure, because the budget lacked any way to pay for the estimated $29 million in fees that would be lost by Envirotest.
Koncelik briefed lawmakers Tuesday about options they can pick from to replace E-Check. The replacements must eliminate at least 6.1 tons of pollutants a day from the Cincinnati region's air.
For example, lawmakers could eliminate 10 tons of nitrogen oxides a day by requiring coal-burning power plants to install state-of-the-art pollution controls. Glen Luksik, who oversees E-Check for the Ohio EPA, said that could cost "crazy amounts of money," adding up to more than $1 billion for a single plant.
Most industrial plant upgrades would not be an "incredible cost" to industries, Ohio EPA spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said. In fact, some would require only ink and paper.
Rewriting some industrial permits to reflect actual emissions, instead of the maximum they're allowed to emit, would give the state credit for improving air quality on paper, even though the plants would pump out the same levels of pollution, Griesmer said.
The Ohio EPA's other suggestions include new pressure valves for gasoline station tanks, monthly checks for tank truck leaks, new paint spray guns for auto finishers and cleaner-burning fuel that would cost drivers about 3 cents a gallon more, costing the average driver about $30 a year, the agency said.
To eliminate E-Check, the Cincinnati region first must come into compliance with old federal ozone standards, Griesmer said.
The U.S. EPA determined in 2000 that the region was complying with old standards. But the Ohio Sierra Club challenged that decision, and a federal appeals court in 2001 agreed that the region did not meet all legal requirements.
The Ohio EPA will submit a new plan to the feds in March, outlining ways to control pollution from sources such as wood furniture coating and industrial wastewater treatment.
Griesmer said state EPA leaders are optimistic that they will get federal approval of the plan, allowing the state to proceed with eliminating E-Check. The region has not had a single violation of the old ozone standard since the court ruling, she said.
Ohio is among 32 states running vehicle-emissions testing programs.
Tad Hauser, 43, Clifton, said eliminating the test makes sense because alternative fuel sources are coming on the market, and new cars are running more cleanly than ever.
"But we really do have tremendous ecological problems," Hauser said. "And I think we need to take personal responsibility for them. It's up to us and not some governmental agency. And I always thought this was a way to take personal responsibility for a problem, and not pass it along."