Davidson County rep feels ire of motorists over emissions testing

By: - August 31, 2021 5:01 am
Scrap autos. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

Scrap autos. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

State Rep. Darren Jernigan is getting an earful from constituents wondering why they have to keep testing car emissions while neighbors in surrounding counties won’t when 2022 rolls around.

The Old Hickory Democrat who represents a chunk of eastern Davidson County is questioning whether the program designed to cut pollution in Middle Tennessee has run its course.

State Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Old Hickory (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Old Hickory (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“It’s a fair argument since emissions don’t stop at the county line,” Jernigan says.

Tens of thousands of people commute to Nashville each work day from Middle Tennessee, in addition to big-truck traffic that crosses through Davidson County’s interstate system daily.

Yet, as of January 2022, Davidson will be the only county in the state to test emissions after surrounding counties opted out of a voluntary program approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Following passage of a 2018 law giving counties the opportunity to get out of the emissions testing program – pending approval by the EPA – surrounding counties such as Sumner, Rutherford, Wilson and Williamson voted to drop emissions testing. Nashville’s Metro Council, though, voted in 2018 to maintain the program.

Since changes in the emissions program were announced in early August, Jernigan says constituent phone calls are 20-to-1 opposed to Metro Nashville keeping emissions testing in place, leading to a bit of frustration.

“If it’s OK with the EPA and it’s good with TDEC (Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation), then what are we doing?” he asks.

State Sen. Ferrell Haile, a Gallatin Republican who also represents the eastern sliver of Davidson County, raises similar questions.

Besides the $9 fee for emissions testing and a clean test before motorists can buy or renew motor vehicle tags, Haile and Jernigan contend the program is a heavy tax.

“This is a penalty against poor people in particular, and 90% of it doesn’t have anything to do with the emissions, it has to do with the technology in a car,” Haile says.

In many instances, vehicle owners are forced to spend thousands of dollars to repair problems detected through the check engine lights on their cars, even if they’re unrelated to the exhaust system, he points out.

“Why would you do that to folks that are struggling?” Haile asks.

A recent letter to Metro Council members from Tom Sharp, director of policy and intergovernmental affairs, points out the law the General Assembly passed three years ago banned counties that attained National Ambient Air Quality Standards from renewing or entering contracts for vehicle emissions testing to maintain compliance. Davidson County, though, was given an exemption because of existing local air pollution control problems.

This is a penalty against poor people in particular, and 90% of it doesn't have anything to do with emissions, it has to do with the technology in a car.

– Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin

Metro Council and other county commissions had to vote within 30 days of the law taking effect to maintain the program. The Middle Tennessee counties are in the midst of a 120-day waiting period until Jan. 14, when the tests can be eliminated.

Metro voted to keep the testing program at the request of the Metro Public Health Department, which runs the emissions testing program and asked the council to retain control of emissions testing because city officials didn’t know what type of off-sets the federal government might require as part of eliminating the emissions testing program.

The EPA didn’t mandate any other programs to make up for the elimination of an emissions testing program, leaving the decision up to the Metro Council.

Sharp’s letter points out, though, “Vehicle emissions testing remains the largest single source of air pollution control in Davidson County, sparing our air thousands of tons of harmful air pollutants each year. That includes hundreds of tons of nitrogen oxides, the critical component of ozone pollution.”

Metro Public Health Department has two contracts for vehicle emissions testing, one for the garages where motorists have their vehicles checked and another for remote sensing in which the vehicle’s exhaust plume is assessed by a sensor. If the exhaust is clean enough, the vehicle owner can skip the traditional trip to the emissions testing center.

The remote sensing hasn’t been adopted, however, because it violated a state agreement with the EPA, according to Sharp. But when that deal becomes void in a month, the remote sensing program will be an option in Davidson County.

Freddie O'Connell, Metro Councilmember for Nashville's District 18, walks down Lower Broadway. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Freddie O’Connell, Metro Nashville Council member, says he doubts the Metro Health Department will recommend an end to auto emissions testing. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Both contracts run through June 30, 2022, giving the Metro Council time to make a decision based on the EPA’s new policy, Sharp’s letter points out.

The question is whether Metro Council members are ready to deal with the emissions testing. 

Many of them are sidetracked with other problems, and Metro Council member Freddie O’Connell doubts the Metro Public Health Department will bring a recommendation to dial back the program. 

If it does, Metro Council will have to weigh the effect such a move might have on public health against the cost of vehicle emissions testing to the general public, O’Connell says. He acknowledges the “equity argument” would play a role in any vote he might cast.

Another factor is that vehicle manufacturers are producing cars that are producing lower emissions. In fact, O’Connell notes he hasn’t had to go through emissions testing for nine years because he bought an electric vehicle with zero emissions.

Ultimately, he says, his vote would depend on whether the Health Department can show data on emissions testing related to pollution as well as a demographic profile of people struggling to meet emissions requirements.

“Can we make any determination about impact on actual air quality and can we make any determination on impact on vulnerable Nashvillians who need these vehicles for access?” O’Connell asks.

State Rep. Johnny Garrett, a Goodlettsville Republican who lives a mile or two from Davidson County, believes the Metro Council should reconsider. He fields numerous calls from Davidson County residents who believe “it’s a useless test.”

“I don’t know why Metro feels like this test should continue when we, overall, have the best emissions from cars that we’ve ever had,” Garrett says. “These cars are made now where … they hardly have any emissions, and so what are we testing? I think Metro needs to ask themselves: what’s the point of the test now when our federal EPA has approved our plan and has basically said it’s no longer necessary.” 

However, Garrett said the Legislature has no recourse on Davidson County because the 2018 law already sets the procedure on withdrawing from the emissions testing program.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.