AUGUSTA, Maine-Long lines, untrained personnel and hard feelings about trading auto emissions credits with industry are among the reasons the Maine legislature has suspended its new vehicle emissions inspection/maintenance (I/M) program. One auto repairer has obtained some 29,000 signatures so far in an effort to get the Maine I/M law repealed. Others in the seven-county non-attainment area in southernmost Maine want to see the I/M system retained, but not as it was.
The suspension went into immediate effect Sept. 1, two months after the state began its I/M program. The July 1 start date was fully six months before any state had to comply with enhanced I/M under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
From the start, consumers found the system's glitches almost overpowering. There was only one centralized testing facility in each county, causing waits of up to 90 minutes for an emissions test.
Systems Control, the California company that holds Maine's I/M testing contract, reportedly staffed the test centers with inadequately trained, part-time personnel.
``Thousands of customers were inquisitive about how the system worked and what was being done to their cars,'' said Steve Kitchen of Biddeford Tire & Auto Service, Biddeford, Maine. ``The people who were working there had absolutely no idea.''
There were even reports of auto damage caused by inexperienced testers. Consumers, meanwhile, were completely unprepared for the expense of emissions system repairs. To obtain a waiver of compliance under the Clean Air Act, a motorist must spend at least $450 on emissions repairs.
Bringing the issue to a crisis, however, was Maine Gov. John McKernan's proposal that Louisiana Pacific Inc., a fiber board manufacturer in northern Maine, receive emissions credits based on the emissions reductions achieved by enhanced I/M in southern Maine.
``That blew the lid off everything,'' said Ted Potter, chief of staff to Maine House Speaker Dan Gwadosky. ``Many people in southern Maine felt they were being forced to make sacrifices just to allow more pollution in northern Maine.'' The northern counties of Maine are not required to test vehicles for emissions under the Clean Air Act.
A select committee of the Maine legislature held public hearings in each of the seven counties, then made recommendations to the legislature. Gov. McKernan, Maine legislators, Systems Control executives and officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency negotiated an agreement to suspend the program until March 1.
The committee has until Dec. 1 to issue its final recommendations on I/M, which would give the legislature three months to rewrite and enact changes in the system. Systems Control has promised to use the time to train its personnel, improve its complaint resolution process and prepare a better public education program.
Meanwhile, the state is continuing testing on a voluntary basis. It has reduced the testing fee from $24 to $14, and is offering a $10 credit to motorists who already have had the testing performed.
It also has reduced the waiver to $125 for cars made in 1981 or later and $75 for older cars. Systems Control agreed to set up a fund to reimburse motorists who paid more than that for emissions repairs in July or August.
Part of the problem with the system, according to Mr. Potter, was that Systems Control and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection signed the contract without public participation in the process. ``To have made this a truly effective program, the public should have been involved from the beginning,'' he said.
Mr. Kitchen doubted the wisdom of starting the program six months before the federal deadline. ``Obviously, in hindsight, we could have used that extra time to fine-tune the system,'' he said.
For some in Maine, the I/M program is too far gone to save. Roger Compagna, owner of Roger's Service Center in Biddeford, is leading a petition campaign to get a referendum on the I/M law on the November 1995 ballot.
He was angered by the Louisiana Pacific proposal, but even more, he simply believes southern Maine doesn't need I/M testing.
``The state of Maine does not have a pollution problem,'' he said. ``So far in 1994, southern Maine has been out of compliance with EPA standards for about two hours....The Clean Air Act of 1990 is nothing but a farce.''
Mr. Compagna needs 53,000 signatures to get I/M repeal on the ballot, and estimates he has 29,000 already.
``We have until January 1 to turn in the petitions, so I'm going to get the maximum number of signatures I can,'' he said. ``If we could hand in 250,000 signatures, that would be fine with me.''
Repeal is the last thing the state government wants, due to federal penalties involved. ``There's $180 million worth of federal highway funds at stake,'' Mr. Potter said.