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No testing may mean increased pollution

by CRAIG PITTMAN on 8/23/00.

But at a public hearing, state environmental officials said it won't be enough to violate federal laws. Other speakers disagreed.

Ending auto emissions tests will add an estimated 12 tons of pollutants each day to the air over Tampa Bay.

State environmental officials said at a public hearing Tuesday that the increase is not enough to violate federal air pollution laws.

But officials from the American Lung Association, in written comments submitted during Tuesday's workshop, disagreed, arguing that even if the DEP projections are on the money, they show "Florida is borderline at best."

Lynn McGarvey, a Tampa woman who testified at the hearing, told the two Department of Environmental Protection officials at the workshop that instead of ending the testing, the state should have begun testing cars for nitrogen oxide, which can contribute to ozone.

"Our air is bad here," she said.

DEP officials were required by federal law to hold the workshop before formally asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for permission to end the testing program that lasted nine years, took in millions of dollars from motorists and forced thousands of smoky clunkers off the roads.

Tuesday's meeting, though, was held after the fact: the Legislature passed a bill ending the tests this spring, and Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law.

M.J. Williamson of the Florida Consumer Action Network expressed some confusion about the purpose of holding the workshop, since the testing already has ended.

"Frankly I don't know why we're here today," said Williamson, whose organization opposed ending the $ 10-a-year tests. "It's a done deal."

In all, about 25 people attended the workshop at the Tampa Port Authority, and 10 spoke. They ranged from representatives of the conservative group Citizens for a Sound Economy, who praised Gov. Bush's courage in signing the bill, to environmental activists such as Bill Reed of St. Petersburg, who condemned Bush for what he called an "immoral" act.

Poorly maintained vehicles account for up to half of the smog-causing pollution in urban areas, but DEP officials say they can get bigger pollution reductions from the federally mandated cleanup of Tampa Electric Co.'s two coal-burning power plants, which begins in 2004.

Florida's tailpipe tests checked to see whether cars were so poorly tuned that they put out excessive amounts of carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. On sunny days, VOCs combine with NOx, or nitrogen oxide, to form ozone.

Ending the tests will mean an extra 10 tons of VOCs will pollute Tampa Bay's air each day next year, according to the DEP's projections. And there will be an extra 1.7 tons of NOx a day without the tests, DEP officials say.

By contrast, TECO's two coal burning plants in Hillsborough County emit about a half ton of VOCs and about 164 tons of NOx a day, according to DEP figures. For years, the two plants have been the biggest industrial air polluters in the Tampa Bay area.

Although the testing program did clean up some NOx emissions, Florida has never really tested cars for NOx. A consultant hired by the state strongly recommended instituting a NOx test for cars, but state legislators refused to consider it and instead simply ended all testing earlier this year.

Ozone can lead to sore throats, chest pains, coughing and headaches. Ozone particularly afflicts children and the elderly, and it also settles into rivers and bays, polluting the water, and harms plant life.

On the day the emissions tests ended, the DEP notified the U.S. EPA that the two areas of the state that would flunk tough new air pollution standards are Pensacola and the Tampa Bay area.

EPA will have a year to 18 months to consider whether to accept the state's new air pollution plan or to reject it as a violation of the Clean Air Act, said the DEP's Larry George.