U.S. EPA leans on Illinois to resume emissions test requirement

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency could face sanctions after its federal counterpart warned that the state's decision to allow drivers to renew license plates without getting an emissions test may "adversely impact air quality."

Trying to save money, the IEPA has stopped mailing emissions test reminders. The state agency and the Illinois secretary of state's office also announced, effective Tuesday, that in an effort to avoid penalizing the public for Illinois' budget crisis, they would still allow drivers who skipped the checkup to register their vehicles.

Not so fast, federal regulators reprimanded in a letter obtained by the Daily Herald. The letter to the IEPA warns of "potentially serious consequences" for the environment of ignoring pollution controls required in the Clean Air Act. The letter also asks the state how it will address environmental fallout and get emissions test stragglers back in the fold.

"If Illinois changes the (vehicle inspection and maintenance) program ... it would deviate from what is currently approved in the (state's ozone reduction plan)," U.S. EPA Air and Radiation Director George T. Czerniak wrote Feb. 19. "Such action is of concern to the U.S. EPA."

IEPA officials had no comment other than to say the agency would respond to the letter in mid-March.

While the letter does not mention potential punitive measures against the IEPA, the U.S. EPA could take over Illinois' emissions program or withhold funds, Environmental Law and Policy Center Executive Director Howard Learner said.

The IEPA "needs to re-examine its shortsighted decision to stop sending vehicle inspection and maintenance program notices to Illinois drivers both so that we better protect public health and so that Illinois doesn't face sanctions," he said.

And drivers who think they're off the hook for a year won't get off so easily, it appears.

Regulators asked the IEPA to specify how long the temporary suspension will last, show how the agency will keep track of noncompliant vehicles, provide a plan to quickly test vehicles that got a pass, estimate the loss in pollution reduction, and explain how to compensate for that. The EPA also asked the state under what authority it acted.

The IEPA has stressed that drivers still must follow the law and get their vehicles tested.

Illinois began emissions checkups in the early 1990s and in 2008 made testing a requirement for getting a new vehicle sticker. The number of "unhealthy" air quality days in Illinois decreased from 26 in 2008 to zero in 2014, according to the U.S. EPA.

The EPA also reminded the state it was tardy in submitting annual emissions testing reports for 2014 and 2015. The IEPA had no comment on the delays.

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