Hamilton County clerk seeks emissions clarifications

photo Hamilton County Clerk, Bill Knowles


• What: Hamilton County Commission Legal Affairs Committee discussion of emissions-related issues.• When: 3 p.m. Friday.• Where: Hamilton County Courthouse, County Commission Conference Room

The Hamilton County official in charge of registering vehicles -- and making sure they pass their emissions test before granting that registration -- wants some details about the testing process to be clarified for motorists.

Early next year, the state of Tennessee will ask companies to bid for the contract for emissions testing in the five counties that require it.

Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles sent an email to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation asking the state to re-evaluate the contract and address three common issues his office hears from motorists:

• Whether air quality standards are compromised when a "check engine" light is on.

• Whether the emission test exemption for new vehicles can be expanded to two years from date of purchase.

• And whether emissions testing approval can be transferred if a car is sold to a new owner.

With the state offering the contract up for rebid, Knowles said this is a good opportunity to get some clarification.

"Emissions testing is a necessary thing. Our air quality is very important," he said. "I'm just trying to make suggestions to help the process."

The current contract for the emissions testing program will end June 30, 2013. There is no timetable yet for the bid process, according to Meg Lockhart, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman.

Vehicles in Hamilton County must pass a yearly emissions test to be registered. Knowles and his staff, who handle the registration process, have heard complaints from residents about the testing, but have been unable to help those who do not pass the tests.

Some motorists say they have been unable pass their emissions tests because their check engine light is on, Knowles said, but mechanics can find nothing wrong with their cars. One man told Knowles he spent six months and $600 trying to pass the emissions test.

"I'd just like for the state to be sure [there's a connection] -- some motorists don't think so," he said.

On Monday afternoon at the emissions testing center at 1620 Riverfront Parkway, most vehicles passed their emissions tests, getting in and out of the center in less than 10 minutes.

It is unlikely that a car would have a check engine light on and not have an emissions-related problem, according to Mark Johnson, district manager for Envirotest Systems Corp., the company that oversees emissions testing in Tennessee. However, some drivers may confuse their check engine light, which relates to emissions, and their service vehicle light, which relates to things like oil changes.

"The person driving the car might say, 'Everything on my vehicle seems fine,' but that's why we test the [vehicle's] computers," said Johnson, who works in Hamilton County.

The emissions inspections began in 2005 after Hamilton County failed to meet federal Environmental Protection Agency ozone standards, according to Lockhart. The testing program, along with gas-vapor recovery systems at gas stations and seasonal open burning bans, are part of the county's measures to improve air quality and prevent federal sanctions that could limit new industrial growth and federally-funded highways, Lockhart said.

Envirotest Systems Corp. has been contracted with the state of Tennessee for the past six years and will rebid when the state releases the request for proposals, said Stewart Say, the statewide general manager for Envirotest.

Contact staff writer Rachel Bunn at rbunn@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.