Emission inspections could become a thing of the past for Surry County residents, if a bill making its way through the General Assembly is made into law.
House Bill 169, which would eliminate the annual tests in 29 of the 48 counties that currently require them — was passed by the state House of Representatives on July 21 and is now under review by a Senate transportation committee.
The new law would go into effect in 2020.
The proposed policy change stems from 2013 legislation aimed at streamlining regulatory processes. It stipulated that emission and air quality levels be monitored and analyzed by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the inspection program be reevaluated.
Concluding that the state ozone levels met federal regulations, and that the inspection program was not necessary to maintain those levels in certain rural counties, DENR delivered the results of the study to the General Assembly in April.
Rep. Sarah Stevens, who represents Surry County, did not vote on the bill due to absence.
The representative said in an email that “we have met all our attainment goals and we have other measures that clean the environment,” such as: “more efficient engines, better fuel processing, and fuel-efficient cars.”
Business owners respond
While eliminating the tests would save car owners $16.40 per car per year, some mechanics are concerned about the potential impact.
“It would really hurt us,” said Scott Lawson, who owns the Mayberry Garage with wife Angela Lawson. Both are licensed inspectors.
Besides lost income from the inspection fees, “forty percent of our repairs are for check engine lights,” said Angela Lawson. She said the garage performs about 100 inspections a month, and problems found during those inspections lead to repairs.
Rob Hotlinger, who owns Shell Rapid Lube in Mount Airy, was “very distraught” when he heard news that the bill had passed, primarily because the state changed its mind.
“The state had us start the inspections, now they’re going to tell us it’s not needed anymore,” Hotlinger said. “I don’t feel it makes any sense to start a program and then end it.”
The emission inspection was fully implemented in 48 counties in 2006 — a costly endeavor for inspectors.
The Lawson’s estimated their testing machine cost upwards of $30,000, and also requires classes and licensing for inspectors and a dedicated analog phone line.
“It’s a lifetime investment,” Scott Lawson said. “We made payments for four years,”
Rep. Stevens wrote that “we did delay implementation until 2020 so that current stations could recoup their investment in machinery to do such inspections.”
“It would help,” Hotlinger said about the delay. “But there’s more money in this than the rest of my business.”
New cars with more efficient engines, held to more rigorous emission standards, hybrids and cleaner gas are one reason the DENR projects that acceptable ozone levels will be maintained in the future without the emission tests.
“I call bull,” Hotaling said. “I see brand new cars with the check engine light on all the time.”
Angela Lawson concurred, noting that “it’s not just older vehicles that have issues.”
The mechanics also doubt that car owners will be willing to repair malfunctioning emission systems if they’re not needed to pass inspection.
“They won’t,” Hotlinger said. “From the consumer’s standpoint, if you don’t have to go get your car repaired why repair it? From an upkeep standpoint it can actually help the life of the car.”
Avoiding emission system repairs can mask other problems with the vehicle and potentially be more costly, said Angela Lawson, adding:
“What people don’t realize is that the check engine light comes on for a reason.”
Terri Flagg can be reached at 415-4734.