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Emissions test hearing ends with a whimper

by CRAIG PITTMAN on 7/21/00.

The EPA was flooded by mail favoring tests, but only 40 people - fans and foes - show up in West Palm.

Though more than 1,000 people wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protest ending auto emissions testing in Jacksonville and South Florida, only 40 showed up at a public hearing on the issue Thursday night.

On one side were sign-toting opponents of the testing who argued that they wasted time and money. On the other side were people like auto parts dealer Gary Zap, who said South Florida car owners already are ripping out their vehicles' catalytic converters.

"Whatever improvements you've had in the air quality are going to backslide,"
said Zap of Boca Raton.

The state plans its own public hearing on Tampa Bay's air pollution problems on Aug. 22 at the Tampa Port Authority. Officials will ask for public comment on what they propose to replace the emissions tests: nothing.

Instead, they are counting on a massive cleanup at Tampa Electric Co.'s two coal-fired power plants, which will start showing improvements in 2004.

Although EPA officials have said they want to see something more immediate, the head of the state's air pollution program, Howard Rhodes, said: "That's nice. So? For the time being, I haven't seen a compelling reason for us to do anything as far as the air quality goes."

Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature ended the $ 10-a-year tailpipe tests at the end of June, but they did so without getting formal permission from the EPA - the first state in history to take such a drastic step.

Technically that violates the Clean Air Act, state officials concede. Other cities and states that have violated the act have lost millions in federal highway funds and have been forced to restrict new factory growth.

But state officials hope to persuade the EPA to go along with their decision. EPA officials said Thursday they haven't decided.

For nine years, the state required car owners to pass an auto emissions inspection every year as a way of cleaning up the polluted air in six counties: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Duval, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.

However, the state believes the air has improved enough in Duval, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade to discontinue the tests in those counties. The state Department of Environmental Protection held two hearings on that proposal last year, drawing about 90 people who were split between supporters and detractors.

The EPA gave tentative approval to ending the tests in those counties, so the DEP asked the Legislature to halt the testing there. The Legislature went beyond what the DEP asked, though, halting emissions testing not only in the four counties where the state had EPA approval, but also in the two Tampa Bay counties - Pinellas and Hillsborough - where it did not.

In the meantime, the EPA has been deluged with more than 1,300 letters from people who did not want the emissions tests stopped anywhere. In a rare move, the EPA decided to hold a public hearing of its own.

The point may have become moot when the testing stations closed June 29. Officials from the two companies in charge of the testing say it will be nearly impossible to restart the program.

Eric Golden, an attorney for one of the companies, told EPA officials at the hearing that the DEP's arguments are based on flawed assumptions and old computer models.

Jim Sugarman of the American Lung Association contended that even if DEP's numbers are correct, "it shows that Florida is borderline at best." He warned that there will be consequences for children with asthma, as well as other people with respiratory problems.

But a platoon of T-shirt-wearing members of the group Citizens for A Sound
Economy said they back the Legislature's decision and are happy to be rid of the tests. They complained about "people from Washington" trying to make the state resume the tests.

One member, John Earley, said newer cars run so much cleaner now that air pollution problems from auto emissions are fading away. However, he also complained about having to wait in line for the tests "for 20 minutes with all the other cars running around me and having to breathe those exhaust fumes, until I have to wiggle my way out of line."