Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell supports ending emissions testing

State's top environment official cautions getting rid of program

An employee types in information to complete an emissions test at the Emissions Testing Center on Riverfront Parkway.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, on Thursday threw her support behind an effort by two state lawmakers to end vehicle emissions testing in Hamilton and five other counties, including her home in Davidson County.

Also signing onto the bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, was Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, who cited the urging of constituents and friends.

Meanwhile, Watson tweeted that Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, who represents Rutherford County, also among the six counties, is backing the legislation, too.

Carter and Watson introduced the legislation, saying they believe the testing is no longer needed because the entire state now complies with the Environmental Protection Agency's air quality health standards on particle pollution, as well as smog.

photo House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, presides over the House on the opening day of the legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

"The honest truth is we're at 100 percent [attainment]," Harwell said after Thursday's House session. "We really have clean air in this state and it makes sense if everyone's going to do it, but just to have a few counties that do it and not everyone, that doesn't make sense. Because air doesn't stay within a county "

The "bottom line," Harwell said, is "it's a hassle to people and it really hurts the poor." She praised Carter's bill as "good legislation."

But Bob Colby, director of the Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau, and others say it's not as simple as that, because the use of vehicle emissions testing, known in official parlance as "inspection and maintenance" programs, was key in getting air pollution down to acceptable limits per the EPA.

Carter said that the EPA has a menu of approaches states and localities can take to address air quality. But experts say finding stationary sources that can be cut out of the equation, such as shutting down a factory, to make up for additional vehicle emissions could prove difficult in some areas.

During a Times Free Press interview on Wednesday, Bob Martineau, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, agreed.

"The plan is to get you into attainment and then maintain that so you don't backslide," Martineau said.

The county would have to change its EPA-approved State Implementation Plan, which Martineau says can be done, depending on what remedies there are to make up the addition in tons of pollutants in the county's air.

For example, Memphis and Shelby County had a partial inspection and maintenance (I&M) program.

"They wanted to get rid of it," Martineau said. "They went and found stationary sources of emissions from plants that were shutting down or whatever that can offset the credit on the I&M program. So they went to EPA and they got approved to take the I&M program out in exchange for making these reductions at the stationary source."

Martineau recalled that a major manufacturer either closed or dramatically cut its emissions and Shelby County used that to make up the loss from the vehicle emissions program.

Carter and Watson's bill has excited interest in Hamilton County, with a number of county commissioners applauding it this week.

At least some residents are excited as well. While the local inspection fee is $9, a "check engine" light on the dashboard or failure of the emissions test can send car and truck owners to repair shops for fixes that can soar into the hundreds of dollars.

"We need to get rid of this thing," said Kenneth Poe of Chattanooga, one of several residents who called the Times Free Press bureau in Nashville. "We're being crucified."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.