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House panel hears testimony on emissions testing program


November 24, 2004 - By SCOTT MILLER

Staff Reporter

Armed with a stack of more than 50,000 signatures requesting the elimination of the vehicle emissions testing program, an in-terim Missouri House Committee on Emis-sions met with citizens last week to remedy the problem.

The Missouri Gateway Clean Air Pro-gram has been under scrutiny since its in-ception in 2000 as being too inconvenient to taxpayers. Scrapping the program altogether, however, could have repercussions environmentally and financially. The committee is charged with discovering ways to revamp the program for convenience if it can't be eliminated.

Despite the nearly one-foot-tall stack of signatures, those attending last week's public hearing at the Holiday Inn South County Center on South Lindbergh Boulevard spoke overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the program.

Of the committee's 10 state representatives, however, eight voted to scrap the program during last year's legislative session.

Every two years, St. Louis area drivers must pay $24 to have their vehicles checked for harmful emissions. Sup-porters say the program has positively affected the environment, removing harmful toxins from the air. But opponents say the emissions tests are inconvenient and a waste of time because failing vehicles get waivers and larger, less environmentally friendly vehicles are exempt entirely.

"The emission's reductions are real and the tons of toxins that have been removed are significant," Mike Fores-man, a Kirkwood resident and Missouri Air Commission employee, told the committee. "I'm in support of this program with all its warts because it works."

Responding to Foresman's remarks, St. Peters resident Larry Egley said, "This is a waste of time. Ninety-five percent of cars pass. Testing is a meaningless process. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is already effective in eliminating industrial pollutants and auto pollutants."

Besides environmental concerns, some supporters worried the business industry would pick up the burden if the Gateway program was ended.

"If vehicle emissions testing goes away, the burden of clean air would shift to the printing company," said Bob Tyler, president of Printing Ministries in St. Louis. "We can't handle that burden (financially)."

While some citizens want the program gone, nearly everyone speaking agreed the program at least needed to be revamped for convenience.

Officials at the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council have been considering options for about a year and presented several ideas to the House committee last week.

They suggest exempting 4-year-old models from testing, rather than just 2-year-old vehicles and offering exemptions for senior citizens or low-mileage automobiles. They also suggest removing weight exemptions so vehicles weighing more than 8,500 pounds must be tested.

Reps. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, and Harold Selby, D-Cedar Hill, both introduced unsuccessful legislation last year to scrap the program. With provisions to possibly revamp the program rather than just gut it, Lembke's proposal lived longer than Selby's, but died in budget committee amid concerns that breaking Missouri's contract with ESP Missouri Inc., which gives the tests, could cost the state $40 million.

Selby said that isn't the case and intends to introduce the same legislation in the upcoming session beginning in January.

Program funds are susceptible to appropriation, according to ESP's contract, and "the state shall not be liable for any cost associated with (contract) termination caused by lack of appropriations."

Lembke, who chairs the committee, said the Legislature will be ready to remedy the problem during the next session, whether it be elimination or a revamp of the program.

"We have a program that's penalizing the 95 percent that pass," he said. "If the 5 percent that fail can get a waiver and continue to pollute, what we as the committee are trying to weigh is, is the program in its current form living up to what it's selling the people? What I haven't seen from the people testifying is any documentation that proves this program has actually cleaned the air."

Officials from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources said certain airborne toxins have reduced nearly 17 percent since 2000, but couldn't attribute the success solely to the emissions testing program.

While Lembke and several other representatives at the hearing said 95 percent of vehicles pass, ESP Missouri officials said only about 80 percent passed, justifying the need for emissions testing.

"Of 530,000 vehicles tested this year through Oct. 31, 51,629 failed," said Richard Fitzherbert of ESP. "It's actually closer to 80 percent. Of those that failed, 1,164 re-ceived waivers, only about 3 percent of those failing. More than 95 percent of failures get repaired."

But about 90 percent of vehicles actually pass, not 80 percent or 95 percent, according to Fitzherbert's numbers.

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