AUGUSTA — Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection on Wednesday told a joint meeting of the Legislature’s Natural Resources and Transportation committees that new tests designed to reduce automobile emissions should apply statewide, and add $3 to $6 to the current $6 cost of annual car safety inspections.
The recommendation came after a series of hearings around the state and in response to a mandate from the Legislature last year to look at measures to bring Maine into compliance with federal air quality standards.
The 1997 order also directed DEP to present the Natural Resources Committee with at least two options, one which had to include the whole state. The area around Portland is the only part of the state where air pollutants exceed federally accepted limits, but DEP officials said many Mainers expressed support for a statewide program.
Under the proposal, motorists would submit their cars to two new tests each year as part of the existing vehicle safety inspection.
Mechanics would check that catalytic converters are present and attached properly, as is now required, and also would have to purchase new equipment to test the seals on gas caps to ensure that fuel vapors are contained. New gas caps cost $6 to $20, and the equipment to test the gas caps costs $500 to $800, but those prices are expected to drop.
The second new test — which checks key functions of on-board computers — applies only to cars from 1996 or later, when the equipment became standard.
DEP proposed adding $3 to the current $6 test fee for the gas cap test and another $3 for the computer check. The new procedures are expected to add 10 minutes to the inspection.
Jim Brooks, who heads DEP’s Air Quality Bureau, reiterated earlier statements that the proposal is the least intrusive and least expensive option capable of bringing the state into compliance with federal requirements. The state has until the end of the year to produce an acceptable plan; if it does not, the Environmental Protection Agency could implement one without state comment.
DEP Commissioner Ned Sullivan stressed that, when cars with the on-board computers become more common, the proposed program will lead to the same reductions as do the more traditional tests that actually measure the pollutants coming out of a car’s tailpipe. Several other New England states now require such tests.
Although members of the two committees had little opportunity Wednesday to begin serious discussions of the matter, represenatives Paul Chartrand, D-Rockland, and Thomas Bull, D-Freeport, appeared disappointed with the scope of the proposal. But Sen. Sharon Anglin Treat, the Kennebec Democrat who co-chairs the Natural Resources Committee, pointed out that the DEP proposal is only a starting point for the committees’ consideration.
Treat’s committee, in consultation with the Transportation Committee, must take the proposal and draft it into legislation. That document, in turn, will be the subject of public hearings later on in the session.