NASHVILLE — Tennessee senators on Monday approved legislation seeking to end mandatory vehicle-emissions testing in Hamilton County and five other Tennessee counties.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, passed the Senate on a 29-1 vote. Because senators added an amendment to the previously passed House bill, the measure returns to the lower chamber for concurrence.
It would not end emissions testing immediately in the six counties. Instead, it directs the Tennessee Department of Environment and officials in the six counties with vehicle-emissions testing to begin what regulators expect will be a several-year process to get approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Watson said it amounts to an "emissions testing repeal-and-replace bill."
"This bill would repeal the emissions testing in those counties, but it puts in place a replace procedure in which TDEC would, in agreemenet with local government and the Environmental Protection Agency, would put in place another process less onerous and certainly less punitive to those individuals who can least afford it."
But, Watson added, it "would still maintain the clean air that we all want."
EPA will have to agree that either the testing is no longer needed for the counties to meet Clean Air Act standards for ambient air quality or else find suitable substitutes to take the place of the testing.
Watson noted he and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, brought the bill after TDEC officials last fall announced that all of Tennessee's 95 counties had attained compliance with Clean Air Act requirements on ozone and particulate pollution.
Watson and Carter reasoned that meant the six counties with emissions-testing programs no longer needed them.
Counties with the annual testing of cars and trucks are Hamilton, Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties. TDEC and Hamilton County officials voiced concerns and language was added to ensure the bill won't take effect unless and until federal regulators make a final determination.
Watson said it is a "repeal and replace bill."
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, recalled how as a youngster growing up in Chattanooga , he and other residents could swipe their hands on the vehicles and come away with black soot emitted from the then-industrial city's factories' numerous smoke stacks.
He later served on the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau. Gardenhire argued the community had achieved "attainment" of pollution standards in 1992, but that federal regulators later drew an "imaginary cylinder to the heavens" for measuring pollution.
That put the city and county in "non-attainment" status due to factors such as vehicle and plant pollution coming in from Northwest Georgia and Southeast Georgia, Gardenhire asserted.
And because of pollution spewing from vehicles, many of them from outside the area, traveling through one of the nation's worst freeway intersections, I-75 and I-24 in Brainerd and East Ridge, matters aren't helped, Gardenhire said.
He also blasted tractor-trailer traffic, drawing protests from Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, a truck transportion company owner. Bailey argued trucking firms have cleaned up their acts at considerable cost.
Gardenhire also criticized the emissions testing programs, arguing inspectors don't measure exhaust but simply plug into a vehicle computer to conduct testing. A faulty system and the inspection can't be passed, the senator said.
"I would submit to you the people who are hurt the most are the ones who can't afford to pay the $400 or $500 or $600" for repairs, Gardenhire said.
Watson agreed. He told the Senate he and lawmakers from other affected areas have had more calls, emails and letters on the emissions-testing bill than any other issue.
Emissions-testing programs currently require vehicle owners to pay a $9 fee, most of which currently goes to the state which has a testing contract for five of the six counties. Davidson County has its own program.
Under a House amendment, counties can opt to keep up to $4 of that. Watson said $1 of that was necessary to avoid a budgetary impact which could have made the repeal-and-replace bill harder to pass. But to get the money, county commissions would have to vote to do so. One dollar would go to county clerks and the remaining $3 go into counties' general fund.