Lawmakers consider lifting auto emissions testing in Westmoreland County
Vehicle emissions inspections in Westmoreland County could be a thing of the past if a group of state lawmakers gets its way — but any changes to the law would require tricky legal wrangling and almost certainly leave some groups angry.
The state Senate Transportation Committee, chaired by Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, will hold a public hearing Friday morning in Unity to discuss exempting seven counties — including Westmoreland — from emissions testing.
“We’re forcing 25 counties to pay for emissions,” Ward said. “Not every county. It’s not as though the air doesn’t travel over the border of the next county.”
Emissions tests are not required in 42 Pennsylvania counties, including Fayette and Somerset.
Pennsylvania’s complicated emissions testing regulations were created in the 1990s to bring the state in line with the federal Clean Air Act.
Drivers in 25 counties must get computerized On-board Diagnostics tests every year, in addition to their usual car inspection. The emissions tests cost around $40.
These counties are under stricter scrutiny because of their population and proximity to metropolises such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Drivers in the remaining 42 counties receive a free “visual inspection” of their emissions systems during their usual car inspection, with mechanics checking to make sure all the required parts are there and in working order.
Ward and other lawmakers think Westmoreland County and others should play by the same rules as their rural neighbors.
“People talk about this all the time, ‘why do we have emissions?’” Ward said.
Area mechanics say they have mixed feelings about the proposal.
“If they get rid of that, a lot of state inspection stations are going to be angry,” said Linda Ferry, co-owner of Ferry Automotive Service in Ligonier.
It costs auto shops a lot of money to keep up with the ever-changing emissions regulations. This year, every shop that does emissions inspections will need to buy new, more- advanced testing equipment — to the tune of about $6,500.
If the law changes, shops may end up with costly machines they no longer have any use for.
“They’re going to have a lot of mad people if we have to buy a machine for $6,500, and then they say, ‘Oh, you don’t need this any more,’” said Donnie Zappone, of Zappone’s Auto Service in Greensburg.
Though he doesn’t want to get stuck with that bill, Zappone says he supports doing away with emissions testing in Westmoreland County, or making the rules the same statewide.
“It almost seems like there’s a lot more negatives than positives,” he said. “If they’re going to do it, I’d rather see them do it over the whole state, rather than just areas.”
Ferry Automotive Service co-owner Matt Ferry said he thinks the regulations have done more good than harm in cleaning up the environment and getting dangerous cars off the road. The air is less polluted than it used to be, he said.
“You could actually smell the hydrocarbons in the air, and it’s not like that anymore,” he said.
The cleaner air is one reason why some say it’s time to do away with the regulations.
Emissions statewide have been dropping since 2002, as older, high-polluting cars are being replaced by newer, greener models, according to a report by the Joint State Government Commission.
The senate transportation committee is focusing its efforts on seven counties: Blair, Cambria, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Lycoming, Mercer and Westmoreland.
The commission study found that those counties meet environmental standards, and removing emissions regulations likely would have only a minor impact on air pollution.
However, that finding comes with plenty of caveats.
The study actually resulted in two documents, each with a very different take on the law.
The main report was based on input from a committee of leaders from the auto industry and environmental groups, which strongly advised against changing the existing regulations, saying such changes would not be allowed by federal law and could harm public health and the environment.
The suggestion to remove regulations from seven counties came from a supplemental memo, written by commission staff, which contradicted the main report. It said changing the regulations is possible under federal law, and would have negligible environmental impact.
The advisory committee and commission staff interpreted the federal regulations differently, said Glenn Pasewicz, executive director of the joint state government commission. Any decision about changing regulations in Pennsylvania would ultimately be up to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and it’s unclear how they’d rule.
“In this case, I think we’re stopping a little bit shy of making firm recommendations,” Pasewicz said. “We’re kind of stating what we think could happen if the state were to take steps in that direction. Whether or not they do is up to them.”
Any proposed changes would have to come from the state Department of Environmental Protection, not the Legislature, said Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based environmental group Clean Air Council.
“There’s a very set process, and it’s a regulatory, not a legislative, process,” he said. “It’s sort of irrelevant what the Legislature does on this.”
The Clean Air Council has been involved in the emissions debate for years, starting a lawsuit in the early 2000s that prompted the state to fully implement its stalled regulatory program. Minott served on the Joint State Government Commission’s emissions advisory committee.
Ward said the transportation committee is gathering information about the process and would work with the DEP on any proposed changes.
The committee’s public hearing starts at 10:30 a.m. Friday at SpringHill Suites, 115 Arnold Palmer Drive, Unity.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jacob at 724-836-6646, [email protected] or via Twitter .