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by LISA ARTHUR on 7/21/00.

In a rare public hearing, the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection listened Thursday night to South Floridians debate the Legislature's decision to end auto emissions testing.

A handful of the almost 20 speakers were upset with the state's decision. Many of them profited from the emissions testing program, which the state had mandated in South Florida, the Tampa area and Jacksonville since 1991, after those areas failed to pass federal ozone standards in the 1980s.

Others were worried about the environment and lung ailments that could result if air quality worsens.

The majority of the speakers, however, supported the state's decision to end the $10 tests, which cost taxpayers $52 million a year.

Many of the anti-test speakers were members of a group called Florida Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation. About 15 of their members attended the hearing at the South Florida Management District headquarters in West Palm Beach. Many of the them donned T-shirts with the slogan "Less Taxes. Smaller Government. More Freedom."

"I'm not really happy to be here tonight," said John Parsons, who spoke against the tests. "I thought this was settled by the state Legislature. Now you guys from Washington come down here to start it all over again. This testing should end."

Gov. Jeb Bush ended the program as of July 1 when he signed a bill passed by the Legislature this session. The state had gotten tentative approval from the EPA to end testing in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Duval counties, where the air has met standards for nearly a decade.

At the last minute, lawmakers tacked Pinellas and Hillsborough counties onto the bill. Both counties have trouble meeting air-quality standards.

The EPA sought public comment on ending the tests after giving tentative approval. The agency logged more than 1,000 letters, most opposed to ending the program. That response prompted the EPA to schedule Thursday's public hearing.

Auto repair shop owners, auto parts dealers, and a lawyer for private companies that run the program warned that air quality would worsen if the program is scrapped.

Manny Exposito drove from Hialeah to make his point. He manages Tire Factory Outlet in Hialeah, a re-inspection station that worked on and tested an average of 600 cars that had failed the test a month.

He told the EPA that ending the program was a foolish decision everyone would regret. He recommended retooling it.

"We should do it here like other states do," he said. "We should test every two years and only test older model cars. I'm in the trenches. I can tell you the new cars don't fail. But the older cars do."

The EPA will make a decision about ending of the program in all six counties in the next few months, said Winston Smith, director of the air, pesticides and toxics division.

He said even if the federal government decides ending the program in all counties is unacceptable, the state will have options - such as testing buses or expanding programs at industrial sites - to make sure air quality is satisfactory without reinstating emissions testing.

"Auto testing has always been voluntary in Florida. The overall program has to deliver air quality that meets the standards," he said.

Failure to comply can cost the state millions of dollars in federal highway funds, but Smith said the state is not in jeopardy at the moment.

The EPA will accept written or e-mailed comments until Aug. 4. They should be sent to Joey Levasseur at the EPA Region 4, Air Planning Branch, 61 Forsyth St., SW, Atlanta, Ga. 30303. His e-mail address is: