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The Daily Tar Heel

Emission standards changed for cars in Orange County, posing health concerns

Cars parked in the Wallace Parking Deck on E. Rosemary St. 

Cars parked in the Wallace Parking Deck on E. Rosemary St. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will no longer test nitrous oxide emissions for vehicles in 26 counties in North Carolina — including Orange County. 

This change could mean savings on inspection fees but could also pose potential health and environmental quality concerns.

The EPA said in the proposal the Inspection and Maintenance Programs, which test for nitrous oxide emissions, are no longer needed for the state to meet emissions goals for nitrous oxide, a known depletor of ozone.

Under the Clean Air Act, these programs are required for counties with ozone levels below the legal minimum. 

In 1995, North Carolina came into compliance by implementing inspection programs in nine counties. In 2002, it went beyond the requirements of the CAA by implementing inspection programs in 39 more counties. 

In November 2017, the N.C. Division of Air Quality asked the EPA to consider removing 26 of those 39 counties from the emissions testings.

The EPA considered the potential impact of the exemptions on the counties' nitrogen oxide emissions, but the report concluded the increasingly lower emissions of vehicles and power plants since 2002 meant the state should continue to meet existing emissions targets, even with fewer counties subject to vehicle emissions testing.                                                                                                                           

William Vizuete, a professor in the Gillings School of Public Health, said any increase in air pollution is not worth the savings in time and money. However, these deregulations are fairly common, he said.          

“If an area shows improvement in air quality and is no longer in non-attainment status, then states can and have stopped regulations,” he said in an email. 

Although he has not looked at the emissions calculations the EPA published, Vizuete suspects the deregulations will have a more local effect.

“I do know that ending this program will result in increases in automobile emissions and negatively impact air quality," Vizuete said in the email. "It may or may not have a statewide change, but it will impact folks who live locally in that area or have to drive behind these cars.”

The EPA projects the exemptions will lead to slightly higher emissions of nitrogen oxide but not nearly enough to exceed the state’s limit under the CAA. 

Vizuete praised the Inspection and Maintenance programs, noting they have been effective in decreasing emissions.

"This kind of testing was effective at targeting those vehicles and reducing what is the most common public exposure to air pollution," he wrote.

He was skeptical of the policy change and said the long-term effects outweigh the short-term benefits.

“Are the savings of $16.40 (on inspection fees) worth the damage done to the health of those communities," he said in the email. "I suspect that the health costs we incur from this are higher.”

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