NASHVILLE — Tennessee environmental officials say they've been working for months to collect and analyze data to ensure a state law seeking to abolish mandatory vehicle emissions testing in Hamilton and other counties won't jeopardize their ability to comply with federal air quality requirements.
But Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) officials, as well as tens of thousands of vehicle owners, may not get a final answer from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for up to three years.
State officials hope to submit a proposal to EPA in 2020 that discusses how they would maintain compliance with federal ozone emission standards required under the federal Clean Air Act. EPA would then have up to 18 months to make a decision on whether to allow the changes.
"TDEC has been conducting data collection and analysis to ensure that the elimination of the emissions testing program will not interfere with the state's compliance with federal air quality standards," TDEC spokeswoman Kim Schofinski said in an email Tuesday. "We have convened and had critical discussions with necessary stakeholders, including EPA and local air agencies."
At this juncture, Schofinski said, the department is "on track to complete our analysis within the previously stated time frame of six months-one year, and expect to have draft revisions to the State Implementation Plan and other documents available in the spring of 2019."
The State Implementation Plan lays out all the measures Tennessee uses to improve and maintain air quality in compliance with federal law.
Once the analysis is complete, Schofinksi said, "we will begin preliminary reviews with EPA, the Air Pollution Control Board, and other state and local agencies. TDEC will also seek the rule-making changes needed during this time."
She said "it's anticipated that we will submit the plan to EPA in the spring of 2020 for review. Then, EPA has up to 18 months to review the plan. Once EPA approves the plan, the program will terminate within 120 days of EPA's approval."
Her comments came after a 78-page state Comptroller's audit of TDEC operation released earlier Tuesday noted that it could take up to three years for the issue to be decided — with the burden on the state to demonstrate that doing away with the mandatory vehicle inspections won't adversely impact Tennessee's reductions of harmful ozone and particulate pollution.
"From our discussion with department staff, the extent of future testing depends on the outcome of the demonstration, and as a result, any changes in the testing program could take up to three years to go into effect," auditors wrote.
In August 2017, the EPA announced that all 95 Tennessee counties were in attainment status, that is, compliant with National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone and particulate matter.
That prompted legislation by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, to do away with the annual mandatory inspections. Passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Bill Haslam in May, the law requires Tennessee to abolish the inspections emissions but makes it conditional on EPA approval.
Car, van, SUV and light truck owners in Hamilton, Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson have used the annual emissions testing for years to become compliant with the federal Clean Air Act.
But armies of vehicle owners detest the program, citing costs, inconvenience and major expenditures to fix problems when their vehicles fail the test. Carter and Watson have pointed to the unfair impact it has on lower-income vehicle owners who face high costs to repair pollution control equipment on their vehicles.
Under the law, Metro Nashville/Davidson County was given a choice on whether to continue its testing program. The Metro Council voted to keep the program.
Then-TDEC Commissioner Bob Martineau cautioned last spring it could take several years if it was possible at all to persuade EPA to let the counties discard the program.
It would depend on determining current emission levels, as well as the impact that vehicle testing has had, he said.
If necessary, state and affected counties would have to find suitable substitutes if possible that would keep them compliant if the inspections go away. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau officials have expressed concerns about that.
In one of several interviews, Martineau noted the department was still putting together data to comply with a 2016 state law that sought to end mandatory emissions testing for newer vehicles than three years old and suggested that work could be combined with the impact of the just-passed Carter and Watson bill.
Carter has argued all along that Hamilton County should be able to maintain its air quality without testing. And he, Watson and others have questioned why Shelby County was able to get out of the testing regimen, with Knox County avoiding it entirely.
The Ooltewah representative said Tuesday in a telephone interview that "we have a meeting in the works" with TDEC officials. "People are calling and trying to get everyone set up. There are about nine representatives and a couple of senators who want to be in the meeting."
Carter said while TDEC officials have told him "everything has begun" on the studies, "every time I talk to someone it gets longer. It never gets shorter. The last time I talked to them, it was as much as three years."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.