Getting in Tune


The dirtiest air in the nation may soon get cleaner. California hopes to sponsor the country's first demonstration project using University of Denver biochemist Donald Stedman's mobile, on-road pollution-testing machine. (See "Going Mobile," Aug./Sept. 1990.)

Stedman's testing device sends an infrared beam at passing cars and accurately measures individual vehicles' emissions. In tests of more than 250,000 cars, he has found that fewer than 10 percent of all cars cause more than 50 percent of auto pollution. And properly maintained cars, regardless of age or pollution-control equipment, don't cause significant amounts of smog.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office—which has its own pollution-enforcement division—wants the state to set up a mobile-testing program featuring the infrared device. But the Environmental Protection Agency may stand in the way.

An amendment to the 1990 Clean Air Act requires state environmental authorities to include on-road pollution tests as part of standard inspection and maintenance programs. Rep. Joe Barton (R–Tex.), the amendment's author, wanted Stedman's technology to identify the cars with the worst emissions—and force the drivers of those cars to repair them. Unfortunately, the EPA's interpretation of the amendment could prevent states from using mobile tests to get "clean air credits."

Under the agency's draft enforcement guidelines, environmental officials can test cars in motion only at designated sites. Or they can pull drivers over and give cars stationary tailpipe tests. Mobile, on-road sensing is out.

As Dan McInnis, environmental policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute notes, these watered-down tests would merely duplicate current inspection and maintenance programs. And drivers of dirty cars could simply avoid designated testing sites. It's as if the EPA intentionally wanted to render mobile sensing useless.

But Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner has asked the EPA to let the state set up a remote testing program and still get clean-air credits. Last year, the state's Air Resources Board conducted a mobile-testing study and found nearly half the worst polluting cars had illegally altered emissions-control equipment. Reiner believes mobile testing is the only way to identify tampered cars. Officials can then force the owners to fix their cars.

In a letter to the EPA's air-pollution enforcement office, Barton praised the Reiner proposal as exactly the type of program he had in mind when writing the amendment. He urged immediate clean-air credits for California—and any other area using mobile, on-road testing. As of late May, the EPA hadn't ruled on Reiner's and Barton's requests.

Barton believes random, on-road tests could eventually replace traditional inspection and maintenance programs. "Annual [car] inspections," he says, "are about as effective in reaching gross polluters as an annual breathalyzer test would be in locating drunk drivers."