Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, have introduced legislation to do just that.
“If you think about it, who is hurt most by having to pay for emissions. It’s those who can least afford it,” Watson said. “So in many ways I would argue we’re removing a burden from some citizens who have less capability to pay to get their car fixed.”
In the past two years, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has announced the federal Environmental Protection Agency has designated Tennessee as having “attained” compliance when it comes to standards for particle pollution, as well as smog standards.
But state and local officials, as well as environmental groups, say it’s not that simple for Hamilton, Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties. All have what are known as inspection and maintenance programs under a State Implementation Plan approved by EPA and which is federally enforceable.
“To eliminate these programs requires a SIP demonstration or revision to be developed, submitted to EPA and approved,” TDEC spokeswoman Kim Schofinski said in a statement to the Times Free Press on Tuesday.
“We are aware of the bill proposed by Sen. Watson and Rep. Carter and are developing our analysis through the traditional process with the legislature,” Schofinksi said.
Her comments came several hours after two TDEC officials spoke with Carter in his legislative office.
Anne Passino, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, meanwhile, said “counties and cities across Tennessee protect their citizens’ health when they require vehicle emission inspections. That’s because the transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to harmful air pollution.”
Carter said he recognizes that but said EPA provides counties a number of options to achieve or, in this case, maintain compliance.
“What you have to understand is EPA doesn’t say you have to have emissions controls,” Carter said. “Knoxville doesn’t have them. So what [federal officials] say is we’re going to lay you out a salad bar, and you can fix your own salad and you can put on what you like – or don’t like.
“And I’m saying take off the anchovies and put on olives,” the lawmaker added.
Carter and Watson said they believe the Tennessee Valley Authority’s shutdown of a number of the federally owned utilities’ coal-fired power plants, as well as lower emission rates of newer vehicles, are playing roles in reducing pollution.
Moreover, VW and Amazon, Carter said, both have LEED certification in which buildings earn points across several categories, including energy use and air quality.
And Carter also said state plans to construct a redesigned intersection of interstates 75 and 24 in Brainerd and East Ridge will help alleviate congestion in the nation’s 11th most packed interstate nationwide.
Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, said a vehicle emissions testing program is a “critically important tool for cities and communities around the state. It’s important to make sure that we have good, clean, flowing air. It’s important for development, to make sure that our air quality is good and construction so that we continue to grow.”
Changing that is “tremendously disturbing, and hopefully the legislation is going nowhere,” Powell said.
Carter said a Soddy-Daisy businesswoman first approached him about the emissions inspection program, which costs $9 per vehicle. She told him she and her husband purchased several used vehicles that couldn’t pass the inspection and didn’t have the large sums of money it would take to fix them. Others are affected as well, he said.
Noting that he has asthma, Carter said, “I understand air quality, because I’m uniquely affected by it. I’m just saying let’s find a better way. I don’t want to lose 100 percent attainment; I just want to do what Knoxville did and pick a better way that doesn’t put it on the back of the working, struggling men and women.”
— Andy Sher, Chattanooga Times Free Press
Times Free Press staff writer Mark Pace contributed to this story.