No end in sight for vehicle emissions testing in Lake, Porter counties

State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, seated foreground, speaks Wednesday to the General Assembly's Interim Study Committee on Roads and Transportation about his belief that it's time to eliminate vehicle emissions testing in Lake and Porter counties.

Dan Carden, The Times

INDIANAPOLIS — Barring a series of unlikely federal policy shifts, there is no end in sight for mandatory vehicle emissions testing in Lake and Porter counties.

The General Assembly's Interim Study Committee on Roads and Transportation learned Wednesday that Indiana cannot simply get rid of emissions testing without incurring severe consequences, and the possibility of air quality improvements ending any need for the program is slim.

"Vehicle emissions testing is an actual mandated requirement of the Clean Air Act with no options to eliminate or replace the program," said Scott Deloney, air programs branch chief at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Deloney explained that the air in Northwest Indiana meets both the 2008 as well as the more stringent 2015 federal standards for ozone, a pollutant produced by vehicle emissions that can cause breathing difficulties for children, the elderly and individuals with lung disease.

But the Region nevertheless is considered by the federal government to be an ozone non-attainment area, because Northwest Indiana is grouped with northeastern Illinois, including Chicago, and southeastern Wisconsin for air pollution measurements, and monitors in those states have recorded excess ozone in recent years, he said.

As a result, Indiana is required to take extraordinary steps to reduce air pollution in Lake and Porter counties.

Vehicle emissions testing, along with strict control of industrial emissions and lawsuits against the federal government, are among the "kitchen sink" worth of solutions the state has thrown at the problem, Deloney said.

"We've fought adamantly to not be included in the non-attainment area," Deloney said. "We've never won the battle."

State Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, is among several area legislators who've reached out to the state's congressional delegation in the hope of shifting Lake and Porter counties to the same air pollution measurement zone as the rest of Indiana, where vehicle emissions testing is not required.

So far, they've had no success in winning policy changes at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Monitoring compliance going forward

In any case, Deloney pointed out that federal law prohibits "back-sliding" on anti-pollution efforts.

So even if the Region were separated from the Chicago area for air pollution purposes, or Illinois and Wisconsin came into compliance with federal ozone standards, he said vehicle emissions testing in Lake and Porter counties likely would have to continue to ensure ozone levels remain in attainment.

State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said such mandates are one reason why Americans are fed up with the federal government.

"The federal government should not make us the whipping boy for Chicago," Soliday said.

Several lawmakers suggested that Indiana might just want to end emissions testing in Lake and Porter counties and see what the federal government does about it.

Deloney cautioned that for cases of non-compliance the federal government is authorized to withhold all transportation funding for both roads and mass transit projects, as well as take over administration of the state's anti-pollution programs.

State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, whose legislation prompted the study committee's review of the issue, said he's convinced there has to be something that still can be done to eliminate an emissions testing program that his constituents tell him they loathe.

"This is the one time that I may agree with Donald Trump when he says he wants to get rid of the stringency of all these regulations," Brown said.

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Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.