Court Orders Expanded Vehicle Emissions Testing in Pennsylvania

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Hotline, Winter 2003

by Beth Toor, GASP Board Member

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled in December 2002 that the State Departments of Environmental Protection and of

Transportation are violating the Clean Air Act by not implementing in 16 additional counties the same type of enhanced vehicle inspection and maintenance programs as in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia regions. The state agencies and the plaintiff, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture), were ordered to discuss an appropriate remedy by mid-February 2003, and to submit implementation plans to the court by the end of February. Otherwise the court will schedule a hearing to determine an appropriate remedy. As of January 7, neither state agency had decided whether to comply or to appeal, but meetings with PennFuture were scheduled.

Since 1997 automobiles and light trucks in five Philadelphia Area counties and four Pittsburgh area counties have been required to undergo an annual air pollution test in which a sensor is inserted in the tailpipe of the running car. All vehicles built since 1996 have Onboard Diagnostic (OBD) technology which allows the vehicle’s computer to be connected to inspection equipment which can determine whether the engine is burning fuel cleanly. This method is quicker and cheaper than tailpipe testing, but there has been little information on how reliable the results are until recently. During 2002, PennDOT ran a six-month voluntary free OBD test program in 17 counties, including Allegheny, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland, and was satisfied with the result. Unfortunately, older vehicles are more likely to have emissions problems, and only tailpipe testing can be used with older cars. A DEP study has concluded that pre-1996 cars will make up more than 20% of the total in Pennsylvania until 2009.

The state had planned to start OBD testing in Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon and York counties in the fall of 2003 but not tailpipe testing, while OBD testing will be added to tailpipe testing in the Pittsburgh area. There do not appear to be any plans for emissions testing in the other eight counties affected by the court order, Centre, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Lycoming, Erie, Mercer, Blair and Cambria.

For more details, see the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, page A-1, Tuesday, January 7, 2003, or online at