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MONEY IS DRIVING FORCE OF ENHANCED TESTING

On Sept. 1, the Salt Lake County Board of Health, after a full 15 minutes of input from the 40 or so attending concerned citizens, voted to recommend enhanced emission testing for cars in Salt Lake County. The same day the state of Maine suspended its 2-month-old enhanced emission testing program.

What is it the people of Maine know that the people of Utah have yet to learn?Under the threat of withholding federal funds, enhanced emission testing is being forced on 33 states by the EPA. It is not a health issue. It is a compliance issue, and money is the driving force.

The test must be administered at central locations (eventually there will be four or five locations in Salt Lake County with a total of 30 test lanes to handle about 500,000 cars). Lines will be long and the test costly. Some estimates range as high as $50 dollars or more, and repair limits will be raised to $450 per year.

The test must be conducted at a "test only" facility. This will put hundreds of present testing-station owners who have invested large sums to purchase equipment out of business. It will put millions of dollars in the pockets of out-of-state interests who are the only ones with EPA-approved "technology" needed for enhanced testing.

For the car owner, it means that repairs will have to be made somewhere else and the car returned for a retest. This bouncing back and forth between the central test facility and the repair shop has been termed the "ping pong effect" by the New Jersey congressional delegation in a harsh letter to the EPA.

New Jersey has more experience with enhanced testing than any other state. It ran a test lane between November 1993 and May 1994. Here are a few telling quotes from the letter to the EPA:

"As indicated by . . . an independent study performed by New Jersey, vehicles can fail an initial test and pass a second . . . test even though no repairs were made to the vehicle . . . Other data . . . shows (sic) that the manner in which a vehicle is operated during the test can increase emission measurements by up to 10 fold, resulting in additional vehicles' false failing . . . experiencing equipment problems on 60 percent of the operating days."

If testing difficulties are not enough, consider the repair side of the problem. In several studies on late model "moderately polluting" cars, about half of those repaired were found to pollute more after repair than before.

Then there is the issue of which cars get tested. Enhanced testing is designed for newer cars, which have been greatly improved in the last 15 years. Today's cars are computer-run and have sophisticated emission controls. Pollution has been reduced up to 96 percent from pre-emission control days.

Of course, some systems fail. One report indicates a failure rate of about 3 percent. This means that 100 percent of all newer cars and their owners (1990 and newer in the Salt Lake plan) must go through the trial of enhanced testing to hopefully find and repair the 3 percent whose systems have failed.

A growing number of states are resisting this onerous boondoggle. So far California, Nevada, Georgia and New Jersey have cut deals with the EPA to implement less intrusive and economically destructive programs. Missouri has sued the EPA to get relief.

Virginia's governor and bipartisan congressional delegation have flat out told EPA it's not going to happen. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., has said, "I don't want to see a downright insurrection in Virginia like we're seeing in Maine." In Pennsylvania, pressure is building to cancel the multimillion-dollar contract for enhanced testing. Here in Utah in the past nine months the governor has sought and acquired legislation enabling enhanced testing.

Utah County commissioners, under great pressure, have resisted enhanced testing and have begun seeking less intrusive and costly ways to achieve air quality standards. But as late as Sept. 1, the Leavitt administration was still strongly urging enhanced testing. It doesn't seem like we can expect much help from the state or its quiescent congressional delegation. However, because of a quirk in the law, an anachronistic throwback to the quaint idea that local government knows best what is good for the people, each county commission is required to approve enhanced testing. This is an opportunity to stop the program dead in its tracks.

Unfortunately, since two out of three commissioners in Salt Lake and Davis counties are running for re-election, there is a powerful incentive to finesse this decision until after November.