Status of Auto Inspection Talks Varies

By Bill Dries

The state of Tennessee is helping facilitate talks between city and county leaders about the coming deadline.


There are conflicting versions of what will happen at the end of the fiscal year. No one is certain or clear about what the federal response will be.

The issue at the center of all of this activity isn’t the coming merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems.

It is the planned June 30 end of city funding for auto emissions testing.

Shelby County government, so far, has not agreed to take on the inspections or their cost. The state, which does inspections for local governments in other parts of the state, wants to wait at least two years to see what new federal clean air standards look like.

Beyond that is the issue of whether inspections should be required countywide or remain for city vehicle owners only.

Bob Martineau, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said through a spokeswoman this week that the state hasn’t made any decision but is encouraging city and county leaders to continue talking.

“No decision has been made on what, if any, action the state may take if the matter is not resolved locally,” department spokeswoman Meg Lockhart said Tuesday, April 9, in an email. “While there have been extensive, thoughtful discussion among local officials, no local solution has yet been forthcoming.”

The central point in the negotiations has been what happens in the two-year interim between the end of city funding with the end of the current fiscal year on June 30 and September 2014 when the Environmental Protection Agency sets new ambient air quality standards.

City and county leaders are convinced they are discussing what to do for the next two years, until the new federal air quality standards are set. At that point, they both have indicated they want the state to take over emissions inspections in Shelby County and to make the politically volatile decision about whether the inspections continue to apply only to Memphis vehicle owners or to vehicle owners across Shelby County.

The two-year timeframe city and county leaders are weighing is in direct conflict with what state Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown said last week he has heard from Martineau and the state several times about countywide emissions testing.

“I received a hard and fast commitment from the commissioner that this will not happen for six years and I believe him,” Kelsey said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

Lockhart didn’t refute or affirm Kelsey’s statement.

“I think this particular timeline he cited was more in line with EPA’s planned revisions to the ozone standards,” she wrote.

The timeline includes the September 2014 date for federal officials to set new ambient air quality standards.

By February 2019, six years from now, state and local air quality programs have to turn in to the EPA their state implementation plans that show how they will comply with the new federal standards including in those counties where the EPA determines the new air quality standards are not being met.

The state’s timeline at that point indicates Martineau’s department expects Shelby County will have three to five years from February 2019 to meet the new standards.

“Administratively, it’s going to be very hard to do,” Kelsey said of the emissions testing transition. “I don’t think anybody should be having these inspections. … I wanted to keep county residents out of it for as long as possible and the city residents – I wanted to provide them with more locations so that they can do it a lot easier. It’s just a pain.”

Kelsey’s comments have prompted Memphis City Council members to weigh such options as ending auto inspections by the city abruptly before the end of the current fiscal year or imposing an “environmental fee” and requiring an emissions test of county residents outside the city who drive their cars in the city at least twice a week.

City and county leaders have at times not even agreed on the nature of the discussions.

Some city leaders say the matter is simple.

“You’re talking about numerous political entities and the EPA and their air quality standards,” Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said as he portrayed a regulatory thicket atop a politically volatile subject.

“I think the public needs to understand the complexity of this,” he added. “You’re talking about EPA and you’re talking about contractual relationships between EPA and the state and what’s in a contract. Those are things that say certain things we have to abide by.”