Frank DeFilippo: State May Be Looking to Scale Back Vehicle Emissions Testing Program

A self-service kiosk for vehicle emissions tests in Owings Mills. Patch.com photo.

It’s not easy being green when we live in an invisible cloud of soot, smog and auto emissions in what is considered among the most toxic regions in the nation.

Gas-driven engines have improved, catalytic converters have been installed, hybrid cars purr along and batteries are half-way here but haven’t fully arrived. The air we breathe and the water we drink are gifts of nature that we are poisoning. We are gagging on our own toxins.

Every working day, thousands upon thousands of cars – estimated at more than 100,000 – form a steady column of commuters from the Baltimore region to the Washington, D.C., area. And that’s only those who travel from region-to-region and back for their jobs and does not include other traffic on the most heavily traveled corridor in the country. Maryland pays a heavy penalty for being a pass-through state.

The haze may have subsided along with daily traffic during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the omen of apocalypse is about to return with the lifting of restrictions and the re-opening of offices and businesses. People tend to get careless when the law isn’t lurking.

But the pandemic has delivered a stern lesson as well as death, isolation, economic devastation and inconvenience. Because of a sharp reduction in traffic, the District has experienced the cleanest air in 25 years. And NASA has observed a 30% drop in the Northeast of nitrogen dioxide, a ground ozone pollutant that is produced by the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline and a major contributor to atmospheric warming.

By the early 1980s, the air quality in Maryland had become so filthy and deadly that federal environmental regulators ordered the state to clean up its act. During that same period and beyond, Maryland experienced one of the highest cancer rates in the nation. And in the 1950s-60s, tuberculosis ravaged the Black community.

In today’s exhaust-fume world of inhaled contaminants, greenhouse gas emissions contribute to asthma and a list of other respiratory ailments that have us wheezing, sneezing and breathing uneasily. Dining al fresco in Maryland can be hazardous to your health.

Frank
Frank A. DeFilippo

And the whiplash weather is no longer regarded as a freak of nature, as in the days before satellites and hurricane chasers, but is attributable directly to earthlings messing the balance of nature and the ozone layer with their mechanized toys – with just under 280 million registered vehicles in the U.S. alone, and about 2 million vehicles registered in Maryland. Even birds and trees are confused.

Thus, the established VEIP – Vehicle Engine Inspection Program – was introduced in 1984 to check auto emissions and force owners to either repair or get dirty cars off Maryland’s roadways. Today there are 18 VEIP stations operating across the state.

Now, as climate change legislation is front-and-center in both the State House and Congress, two heavyweight members of the General Assembly are questioning why two of Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) cabinet secretaries want to make major changes in the familiar VEIP testing program without consulting legislators.

The potential skirmish between lawmakers and bureaucrats is taking place as the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021, chronicled in detail by colleague Elizabeth Shwe, is moving through the General Assembly. It calls for planting a massive canopy of trees, 5 million to be exact, a state fleet of all electric cars, energy efficient schools and other buildings and a pollution reduction goal of 60%.

And a separate bill would empower the attorney general to prosecute fossil fuel companies that contribute to environmental damage in deceptive ways.

By contrast, the cabinet secretaries who oversee VEIP – Gregory Slater of the Maryland Department of Transportation, and Ben Grumbles of the Maryland Department of the Environment – appear to be heading in a competing direction.

By policy decision and not regulation or legislation, they have issued an RFP that proposes to greatly reduce the number of vehicles that are required to undergo emissions testing, shut down an undisclosed number of VEIP testing stations and turning over testing to private auto repair shops. This, in itself, is ripe for mischief.

The two chairmen of committees that oversee VEIP – Sen. William C. Smith Jr., of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, and Del. Kumar Barve, of the Environment and Transportation Committee – in a joint letter to Slater and Grumbles written late last month, complain that “the General Assembly was not given any advanced notice of these changes, several of which have policy implications for which we have seen no proposed legislation or regulations…”

The MDOT and MDE proposal would extend the exemption from VEIP testing for new vehicles from three model years to six model years – estimated to be about one-third of the cars currently being tested under the program, in addition to closing an undisclosed number of testing sites. The proposal also contains a pathway for exempting even more model years in the future.

According to MDE’s own studies, gas-powered vehicles account for 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

The committee chairmen, Smith and Barve, ask a number of questions in their letter, including whether the proposed changes have “been shared with the Governor’s Climate Change Commission or any other public body with interest in or oversight over air quality programs?”

That question is especially relevant as Hogan has often presented himself as a champion of the environment. Contrary to this projection, though, Hogan has regularly demonstrated his preference for asphalt over environmentally friendly public transportation, adding the prospect of even more vehicles and their contaminants to car-strangled roads.

“We are disappointed that MDOT and MDE have embarked on these significant changes to the very successful VEIP program without first obtaining input from members of the Maryland General Assembly,” Smith and Barve wrote. “Nor, to our knowledge, has input been sought and received from environmental advocates, industry stakeholders, and others through a public notice and public hearings process, which we believe is required under federal law for a program that is part of Maryland’s State Implementation Plan. It is particularly troubling that the State intends to lock itself into a 5 to 10 year contract based on policy decisions that have clearly not been property vetted via the legislative or regulatory review process.”

In all, according to available numbers, the VEIP RFP would eliminate testing of more than 30 model years of medium-duty vehicles, model years 1977 through 2007, and more than 35 model years of heavy-duty vehicles, model years 1977 through 2012. And idle tests, as well as gas-cap tests, would end for many heavy-duty vehicles.

VEIP has been around for 37 years as a key component of Maryland’s arsenal against environmental cataclysm. It began as a gripe-fest of complaints about inconvenience but has evolved over the decades as an accepted part of entitlement to motoring in Maryland, along with a driver’s license.

The air we breathe, the water we drink and the land we share are irreplaceable compared to allowing clunkers on the road that should either undergo detoxifying or be consigned to a shredder.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.