Environmental Groups Target California’s Failing Smog-Check Program for Possible Lawsuit

Notice Letters Sent to State Agencies Charging Violations of State Air Plan

LOS ANGELES (July 20, 2000) – The failure of California’s Smog Check II program, which promised to deliver 110 tons per day of air pollution reductions to California, prompted environmental groups today to send out "60-day" notice letters of their intent to sue to California agencies for failing to implement the program in violation of federal law.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Coalition for Clean Air today sent letters to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the California Department of Consumer Affairs (CDCA), and the California Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR), warning that they intend to file a lawsuit against the agencies for failing to achieve necessary emission reductions and implement the smog check program as required by the 1994 State Implementation Plan (SIP) and the federal Clean Air Act.

At issue is the Enhanced Vehicle Inspection and Maintenance Program, a critical element of the 1994 SIP that was designed to identify highly polluting vehicles and ensure their repair or removal from the road. Better known as "Smog Check II," the program was intended to deliver 25 percent of the emission reductions needed in 1999 to achieve attainment of federal air quality standards. If administered properly, the program would have reduced 110 tons per day of smog-forming air pollutants across the state last year alone. The program is failing miserably, however, and CARB released a report last week confirming that only 36% of the pollution reductions committed to by the State for 1999 were achieved.

"Any program that achieves only a fraction of its emission reduction goal needs a major overhaul," says NRDC senior attorney Gail Ruderman Feuer. "There’s no excuse for allowing dirty cars on the road to continue to foul our air."

"The Smog Check Program is a critical component of California's strategy to reduce air pollution and protect public health," says Tim Carmichael, executive director of the Coalition for Clean Air. "In addition to providing significant pollution reductions, this program serves to remind all California drivers that each of us has a responsibility to maintain our vehicles to minimize air pollution. "Environmentalists say that the agencies failed to implement several key elements of the program that were required by the SIP including, among others:

  • Failing to ensure that at least 15% of all vehicles on the road in California are tested annually at "test-only" inspection stations (stations that are prohibited from repairing the vehicles they inspect). The use of test-only stations is a key element of the Smog Check II Program and is intended to minimize fraud in the test and repair process;

  • Failing to increase the percentage of vehicles directed to test-only stations as necessary to make up for the enormous shortfall in emission reductions caused by other program deficiencies;

  • Backtracking on special measures to regulate gross polluters – those vehicles with the highest emissions – including annual inspections and the requirement that these dirty vehicles be repaired or removed from the road. (Most vehicles are inspected every two years and have a cap on the cost of required repairs.) Financial assistance programs are available to offset the expense of costly repairs on these vehicles.

  • Failing to implement gross polluter identification procedures, called "remote sensing," to ensure that the most polluting vehicles are brought into the test and repair process;

  • Failing to implement stringent emission standards, known as "cut points," which determine whether a vehicle passes or fails inspection. In 1999 these cut points were set at lax levels so vehicles with high emissions could still pass the test;

  • Failing to compensate for lost emissions reductions due to exemptions for pre-1974 vehicles from inspection. (Starting in 2003, all vehicles older than 30 years will be exempted.) These exemptions limit the effectiveness of the program because the oldest cars emit the most smog-forming pollutants.

According to EPA estimates, motor vehicles create about half of the ozone (smog) pollution in the United States. Therefore an effective smog check program is essential to achieving clean air in California. In giving notice to the agencies, the environmental groups plan to file a lawsuit in federal district court, after waiting the required 60 days under the Clean Air Act, unless the agencies agree to remedy the deficiencies in the program before then.

NRDC is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, the organization has more than 400,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The Coalition for Clean Air is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to restoring clean, healthy air to California through a combination of education and advocacy.