Hamilton County may be just a few months from ending its motor vehicle inspection and maintenance program.
When former federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 4 administrator Mary Walker signed off on Tennessee's plan that would allow the state to end the inspection program on Jan. 19, 2021, it was expected the end would come a little sooner.
But out of an abundance of caution, state Sen. Bo Watson, D-Hixson, said Thursday, an additional 30-day public comments period has been added to address a part of the state's plan.
Even with that delay, he said, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) believes "everything is still on track" and that things could be "done and finalized by August."
Hamilton and several other state counties agreed to begin vehicle inspection programs in the early 2000s if the EPA held back on requiring its own stricter pollution-reducing measures, according to newspaper archives. Hamilton County implemented its plan on April 1, 2005.
By 2018, TDEC announced the EPA had designated Tennessee as having "attained" compliance when it comes to particle pollution and smog standards.
That year, Watson and state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, engineered the passage of a bill in the General Assembly that would set in motion the removal of the inspection program. It would take effect 120 calendar days following the date on which the EPA approved a revised state implementation plan for Hamilton County and five Middle Tennessee counties.
That's where the delay comes.
When Walker signed off on the plan, it was to become official once it was published in the Federal Register. On Wednesday, instead of the rule being published, a proposed EPA rule for the air plan was published there - with a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking.
You can submit comments, identified by Docket ID No. EPA-R04-OAR-2019-0618 (Middle Tennessee Area) or EPA-R04-OAR-2019-0619 (Hamilton County), at www.regulations.gov.
The new proposed rule seeks "to affirm that the Hamilton County and Middle Tennessee areas would continue to attain and maintain the national ambient air quality standards after removal of the [motor vehicle and inspection] program, and to rely on an emissions inventory comparison to inform its determination that both areas would continue to attain and maintain [acceptable] ozone and carbon monoxide" standards.
For Hamilton County and the Middle Tennessee counties, that plan would compare the emission of specific pollutants in a base year of 2014 to those in 2022, which would be the first full year without the inspection program. For both areas, the projected emission of pollutants in 2022 indicates the program's removal "will not interfere with attainment or maintenance" of national air quality standards.
The new proposed rule also proposes "to conclude that the removal of the program will not interfere with other states' ability to attain and maintain [ozone levels] under the good neighbor provision of the Clean Air Act."
The additional written comments period - put in place by the EPA to reduce the possibility of a challenge - mainly covers the use of the emissions inventory comparison to maintain air quality standards. The period for comments ends May 24.
Nevertheless, the basic air quality information published in the proposed rule is positive.
Contained in it is this definitive statement: "Hamilton County is currently in attainment with all [national air quality standards] for ozone levels." It states further that, unlike the Middle Tennessee counties, Hamilton County is not required to operate a carbon monoxide monitor.
The document also notes the Middle Tennessee counties in the program are currently in attainment with national air quality standards.
"Our folks feel pretty confident" about things going forward to wind down the program, Watson said.
Three years ago, he explained the reason he and Carter introduced their bill.
"If you think about it, who is hurt most by having to pay for emissions?" Watson asked. "It's those who can least afford it. So in many ways I would argue we're removing a burden from some citizens who have less capability to pay to get their car fixed."
He wasn't referring to the $9 inspection fee but to the many hundreds of dollars that often are expended to repair a car for it to pass - only for it to fail again, requiring even more expensive repairs.
Envirotest, which operates the emissions testing network in Hamilton and the Middle Tennessee counties, performs 1.1 million vehicle tests on cars and light trucks manufactured in 1975 or later annually.
If and when the state program ends, Nashville's Metro government has voted to retain a vehicle inspection for its vehicles.
However, with cleaner cars being manufactured and cleaner air, that burden for Hamilton County drivers - and many in the other Middle Tennessee counties - is close to being lifted.