Raleigh, N.C. — A measure that passed the House Finance Committee on Thursday morning would cut the state's required vehicle emissions testing program by 60 percent.
The initial version of House Bill 169 would have removed six rural counties from the testing requirement. By the time it passed the committee, 29 counties were taken off the list, leaving only 19 counties in the state's urban areas with mandatory emissions testing.
Bill sponsor Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, said the program was designed by federal regulators to reduce nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide air pollution. He said the Division of Air Quality found that the counties on the list no longer have problems with that pollutant, making the emissions testing requirement "redundant."
"The extent of this program was about certain pollutants in certain areas," Hager said. "Now that we're seeing pollutant decrease, these are not needed."
Hager credited the improvement to better automotive technology and less industrial pollution, particularly from coal-fired power plants. In his own county, for example, four coal-fired units at Cliffside have been mothballed, and the two remaining units have new pollution controls. He said any additional pollution from ending emissions testing would be fractional in comparison to the improvement overall.
"Since we've not seen violations in a number of years," Hager said, "we'd like to give them a little bit of a break."
Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, expressed concern about the bill's effect on the state's overall air quality and the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. He asked DAQ director Sheila Holman when the state's last "Code Orange" day occurred.
Holman replied that it was June 25, with pollution exceeding allowable levels in Mecklenburg and Forsyth counties.
Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, argued that air pollution is a public health issue, and such a large rollback of the testing program in counties adjacent to urban areas could have negative effects in those urban counties.
"Pollution doesn't stop at the county line," Luebke said.
However, bill supporters argued that particulate pollution from urban counties is more likely to travel outward to rural areas than the other way around.
Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, said a mechanic had told him that car owners who can't pass the emissions test can get an exemption if they show proof they spent $200 trying to pass it.
"It sounds like to me it's more of a racket than anything else," Collins said.
Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, ran a successful amendment to remove his county from the testing requirement too.
"They'll thank you for it," Hager commented.
As amended, the bill would require emissions tests in only the following counties: Alamance, Buncombe, Cabarrus, Cumberland, Davidson, Durham, Forsyth, Gaston, Guilford, Iredell, Johnston, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, Orange, Pitt, Randolph, Rowan, Union and Wake.
Chatham, Edgecombe, Franklin, Granville, Harnett, Lee, Moore, Nash, Wayne and Wilson counties are among those where drivers would no longer have to get their cars tested for emissions standards.
Meyer tried to refer the bill to the House Environment Committee, which has not seen it, but the motion was defeated at the request of bill sponsors.
"The Senate will shut their committees down next week. We need to get this bill moving and get it to the floor," Hager said.
However, later Thursday morning, Hager said the bill needed more work, explaining that there are concerns about the effective date and how it would affect small-business owners who have invested in emissions testing equipment in counties where the requirement would be repealed.
In a statement, the N.C. Sierra Club criticized the proposal as "gutting yet another program that's a North Carolina success story."
"Motor vehicle emissions testing has helped to improve air quality throughout the state. Emissions from motor vehicles represent a major contribution to smog or ozone formation. Air pollution can cause asthma and other public health problems,” said Sierra Club state director Molly Diggins.
“The legislature is also considering slashing the number of air quality monitors in the state and allowing trucks and other heavy vehicles to idle more, increasing harmful air emissions,” Diggins said in the statement. “It’s short sighted to take improvements in air quality for granted, and to kick to the curb the very programs that are responsible for those improvements."