In a bid to end the mutiny of individual states against stringent new vehicle emission inspection/maintenance programs, the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to work toward a compromise. After meeting with five governors Dec. 8 and 9, EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner said the agency will help states design alternatives to the centralized, high-technology I/M tests the EPA required under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
About a dozen states-particularly California, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maine-have balked at the I/M regulations, which require use of expensive, highly sophisticated ``IM240'' testing equipment and strongly recommend centralized testing locations divorced from auto repair shops.
However, Virginia has taken the matter a step further (see story below).
Several members of Congress have taken up the cause of the states and the auto aftermarket. The Virginia Congressional delegation interceded on behalf of its home state, which the EPA threatened with cutoff of highway funds for not agreeing to centralized testing.
Rep. Ron Klink, D-Pa., also introduced a bill directing the Office of Technology Assessment to perform a cost-benefit study of I/M methods and make recommendations ``so that the states shall have flexibility to fashion effective, fair and reasonable enhanced programs'' for consumers.
Some automotive aftermarket spokes-men, however, are concerned that the movement against the EPA I/M program will kill off I/M altogether-which would be healthy neither for the environment nor for the auto repair industry, they said.
More than 180 high-pollution areas in the U.S. were required to have enhanced I/M procedures in place by Jan. 1, 1995, according to the Clean Air Act. But trying to enforce enhanced I/M as promulgated has proven a massive problem for the EPA.
California was the first to rebel, negotiating an agreement with the agency to allow decentralized testing of vehicles six-years old or newer. Other states followed, despite EPA threats of highway fund sanctions.
The Maine legislature suspended the state's I/M program last Sept. 1, because of complaints over expensive repairs, untrained testing personnel and long waits at centralized testing facilities.
Soon after, the Pennsylvania legislature rescinded its I/M program, and later overrode Gov. Robert Casey's veto.
And Virginia resolutely continued to offer the EPA an I/M program plan which allowed some use of decentralized testing facilities, despite the agency's refusal to approve testing by repair shops.
Even states that are following EPA directives are varying the rules. Maryland, which began IM240 testing on schedule Jan. 1, will give vehicles from the 1995 model year or later a two-year exemption from the I/M test.
Meeting with the state governors, Ms. Browner promised to allow the states more flexibility in designing I/M programs-as long as they could achieve the same reductions in smog as with the IM240 program.
Details of the compromise have yet to be worked out, according to EPA spokeswoman Martha Casey.
``In the interim, the agency will be talking with the states, and those conversations probably will be held in our regional offices,'' Ms. Casey said. ``But there's nothing down on paper at this point. Learning what emissions reductions we'll get from alternative programs will take some time.''
The American Retreaders' Association is ``excited'' about the compromise, according to Roy E. Littlefield III, ARA government relations director. The association worked with Rep. Klink on his I/M bill, and expects him to reintroduce it in the next Congress.
Nevertheless, Mr. Littlefield believes the compromise is a mixed blessing.
``We're very happy that the EPA is responding to public sentiment,'' he said. ``But if the automotive aftermarket doesn't get its act together, the whole program might be thrown out.... For those who do auto repair, enhanced I/M has real marketing potential.''
In a letter to the EPA's Ms. Browner, the Automotive Service Association (ASA) reiterated its position that the states be allowed to pursue effective I/M programs best suited to their individual needs.
According to Bob Redding, the ASA's Washington representative, the association ``believes the overall benefits of stringent I/M programs will be lost if there is no federal mandate to compel strict state compliance with specific and forceful guidelines.
``Without strict guidelines and tough review, we believe that most states will elect to maintain the status quo or adopt only the standards of minimal compliance. The EPA must exert its full power available in the law to protect the integrity of the program and assure the environmental future of our nation.''
The ASA includes some 12,000 businesses and more than 55,000 professionals from all segments of the auto service industry.
Mr. Redding wrote that ``much time and energy has been expended by our members in anticipation of the implementation of their state's program. We encourage the (EPA) not to signal any indication that the federal government is backing away from its commitment to a clean and healthy environment, or that their preparation has been wasted.''