Into the ether 

End of emissions tests doesn't mean motorists will be breathing easier

click to enlarge Robert and Jake Ainsworth, emissions inspectors at - Exhaust Readers, say business is lagging as the county - prepares to end mandatory emissions testing. - 2006 JON KELLEY
  • 2006 Jon Kelley
  • Robert and Jake Ainsworth, emissions inspectors at Exhaust Readers, say business is lagging as the county prepares to end mandatory emissions testing.

Last week, El Paso County motor vehicle division manager Bob Becker happily purveyed some good news: If you're fed up with emissions inspections, relief has finally arrived.

As of Jan. 1, the state's inspection program, which began in 1981, ends forever in El Paso and parts of Larimer and Weld counties. Actually, if you're due for an inspection this month, you should probably forgo it, Becker says.

"Take advantage of the 30-day grace period," he says. "Save the $25 test cost."

But not everyone is as pleased as Becker about the coming change. Jane Ard-Smith, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Pikes Peak Group, fears that the end of the inspections will only worsen the region's increasingly polluted air.

People won't know if their vehicles are spewing out pollution and need repair, she says. And the county could become a dumping ground for big-polluting cars that can't pass inspections in the Denver metropolitan area.

"There's big potential for abuse," she says.

Mike Castine, owner of Exhaust Readers, an emissions tester in Colorado Springs, agrees. There's nothing to prevent drivers from improving a vehicle's performance by removing pollution-reduction equipment.

"It can quickly become a problem," he says.

Vehicles contribute more carbon monoxide across the Front Range than any other source.

But since the inspection program's introduction, newer cars have dramatically reduced carbon monoxide emissions, keeping the county well below the federal limit since 1988.

That's a big reason why the state's governor-appointed Air Quality Control Commission voted to scrap the inspections, says commission spokesman Christopher Dann, though tests still will be required for vehicles that burn diesel fuel.

Last year, 8.6 percent of the more than 361,000 vehicles tested in El Paso and parts of Larimer and Weld counties failed inspections.

Though that provides a good picture of how many high-polluting cars may remain on the road in 2007, Rich Muzzy, environmental planning program manager for the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, says the commission considered that and myriad other concerns before ending the program.

"The modeling showed that carbon monoxide emissions would increase, but by a relatively small amount," he says.

The county's current carbon monoxide levels are no more than 55 percent of the federal limit. The levels should rise roughly 5 percent without inspections, Muzzy says.

Meanwhile, another pollutant ground-level ozone has helped to delay the end of Denver's emissions inspections. Ozone, not to be confused with the protective ozone around the Earth, is a primary ingredient in rising smog, which may create or exacerbate respiratory problems.

"We're keeping the tests for now, because of the small benefit we get in reducing ozone in the Denver area," says Dann. "We need all the help we can get."

The seven-county Denver metropolitan area entered a state plan to reduce air pollution last year after the Environmental Protection Agency threatened a crackdown that could have led to a loss of federal highway construction money.

Ozone pollution is also rising in fast-growing El Paso County.

In 1998, the county was at 69 percent of the maximum allowable limit for ozone. The county is now at up to 90 percent of that limit and could surpass the limit within a decade, Muzzy says.

However, officials decided not to push to convert the county's carbon monoxide emissions program to one that zeroes in on ozone pollutants, Muzzy says.

"It is a proactive measure we could take, but it would cost a lot of money," he says.

Ard-Smith says without inspections, the die is cast for future officials to be saddled with an air pollution problem that could fester until the threat of EPA intervention.

"With how fast El Paso County is growing, we will at some point have to revisit this," she says.

Muzzy agrees, particularly when it comes to ozone pollution: "You'll reach a point with the rising population when it is a problem."



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