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Deep Dive: Legislation could end Treasure Valley emissions testing. Officials see pros, cons

If you dread heading to the emissions testing station to get your vehicle checked, you might be in luck by next summer. 

A new bill introduced by Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, would remove requirements for any emissions testing in the Treasure Valley by 2023 and shutter the Treasure Valley Air Quality Council. It would also create a process for the Department of Environmental Quality to recommend the legislature create any new regional air quality councils when pollutants in the air hit certain levels. 

Proponents of the legislation, including the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and the Department of Environmental Quality, say cycling out emissions testing reduces regulations on Idahoans. They also say it is not as effective in improving air quality as it once was as the technology in vehicles improves and overall emission production drops. On the other hand, others say emissions testing helps keep heavily polluting vehicles off the roads, and ending the program would harm the owners and employees of emissions testing stations around the region. 

On Tuesday, the Senate Transportation Committee unanimously sent the bill to the Senate floor.

Decades of testing 

Photo: Jake King/Idaho Press

Cars and the gases they put into the atmosphere were much different when President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act.

In the 1970s and 1980s, carbon monoxide levels were rising in the northern half of Ada County hitting levels triggering an intervention from the Environmental Protection Agency. This resulted in the emissions testing program run by the Ada County Air Quality Board for everything in Ada County north of Kuna.

And, it worked. Ada County Air Quality Board Executive Director Matt Stoll said Ada County has not violated government standards for CO since the early 1990s, even as the population boomed. DEQ data shows of the 143,000 vehicles tested in Ada County in 2020, just shy of 11% failed, and nearly 99% of residents complied with the program.

The maintenance plans put in place to address the CO problem is set to expire next year. Legislators want to create a program that takes the emissions testing requirement for Canyon County and Kuna off the books as well. 

Although everyone living in both of the Treasure Valley’s biggest counties has to test, the programs are enforced by two different levels of government. Northern Ada County is required to test because of the EPA’s order in the mid-80s, but Canyon County and Kuna’s program was created by the Idaho Legislature in the early 2000s. This Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry supported the effort to start the program at the time. 

Does emissions testing ever end?

An emissions testing station in Ada County. Photo: Anna Daly/BoiseDev

Once the air in an area improves, there is a way for the testing requirements to end. 

At the end of a decade-long maintenance plan to address a problem with a specific pollutant, like CO in the Treasure Valley’s case, areas can decide whether they want to continue the program or end it. To close out the program, officials must submit an analysis showing the area will still not exceed the federal clean air standards even if emissions testing ends. 

Stoll noted that the Air Quality Board is not behind or endorsing the legislation to end emissions testing or the state’s push to sunset the program, but he expects the Treasure Valley to meet the government’s criteria allowing the program to end. He said this follows a national trend of states, like Idaho’s more liberal neighbor Washington, ending emissions testing. 

“The CO levels are really low in Ada County,” he told BoiseDev. “There are some cases where you’ll see it elevated, and what (Department of Environmental Quality) folks found is somebody’s delivery truck was parked under the probe, and it was left idling during the wintertime, and that caused the elevated levels.” 

Governor Brad Little has been pushing in recent years to eliminate as many regulations in the state’s various departments as possible, dubbing Idaho the nation’s least regulated state. DEQ Air Quality Program Manager Tiffany Floyd said when the opportunity came up to cycle Ada County out of the EPA’s air emissions program and reduce regulations on residents, the department opted to take it. 

[Gov. Little on climate change: it’s real and leaders have to take action]

“Idaho in general, but particularly the local community, would rather not be required to do something federally if we don’t have to,” Floyd said. “We think we can remove emissions testing from a requirement and we can demonstrate that we can comply with those standards so that’s what we’re doing in relation to Ada County in the next number of months.”

‘Where is the concern’? 

ACHD Commissioner Kent Goldthorpe

Not everyone is on board with this proposal. 

Kent Goldthorpe, an Ada County Highway District Commissioner and former executive director of the Ada County Air Quality Board, is vehemently opposed to the idea. In an email to BoiseDev, he compared the legislation to a perfectly baked cake prepared outside of the public eye by special interests “without the frosting of information and due diligence.” He told BoiseDev he was speaking as an individual and his views did not represent ACHD.

He takes issue with DEQs modeling air quality data modeling, pointing to a presentation from a DEQ official to the Air Quality Board in November. In the presentation, Dave Luft showed a series of data points to board members and noted one instance where there was a spike in pollutant levels due to the monitor being unusually close to sources of pollution. 

“The one blip in 2017, we know exactly what it was, and it was not really an ambient issue, but where our monitor was located there were some local sources contributing to CO where the monitor was located,” Luft told the board. “We couldn’t exclude that data, but 2017 wasn’t terribly representative.”

Goldthorpe objects to this because he said it shows the state moved monitors to cleaner areas to get better results. He questioned why COMPASS, which runs the Air Quality Board, is not objecting to the legislation or the air quality data the state is using to subject to the federal government. 

“Where is the concern for the future of great air quality in the Treasure Valley?” he wrote. “Gone, apparently from the Ada and Canyon Republican members of the 2022 Idaho legislature.”

That inversion tho  

The inversion, looking down from Bogus Basin Road. Courtesy of Clancy Anderson

Just because officials say the Treasure Valley’s CO levels are low enough to end emissions testing doesn’t mean our air quality is pristine. 

Boise has been shrouded by long stretches of overcast skies this winter due to the cold weather, trapping smog and other pollutants down in the valley. Particulate matter, like dust kicked up from farming and residue from wood-burning stoves, is also on the rise alongside ozone. But, because the emissions testing program was targeted explicitly toward CO, that is the only pollutant studied by the EPA to decide whether emissions testing can end or not. 

That doesn’t mean the Treasure Valley will be free of federal government regulations on air quality. Under President Biden, the EPA is expected to revise its ozone and fine particulate matter standards, potentially putting the Treasure Valley in a position where it needs to start a new mandated program to make improvements. 

CO can be addressed with emissions testing and toughening federal standards on how vehicles are built, but ozone and particulate matter are a more difficult nut to crack. Floyd said it will take a combination of outreach campaigns on cleaner-burning wood stoves, more usage of tactics to keep dust down on farms and during construction, and rethinking how we travel. 

“When you start thinking about transportation measures, you have to be brainstorming if there is carpooling that can be added or some of the transportation projects have been calling for roundabouts to keep vehicles moving and less idling,” Floyd said. “There’s a lot of other options that we can call on as a community to be working on to maintain the good air quality we have.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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