In a setback for California air-quality regulators seeking a massive recall of late-model Toyotas, a state arbitrator has said that officials cannot recall vehicles that are not actually causing pollution, even if their smog-control equipment doesn't meet state requirements.
The nonbinding ruling--which can be rejected or even changed unilaterally by the state Air Resources Board--was handed down by state Administrative Law Judge Jaime R. Roman in Sacramento on Thursday after more than eight weeks of hearings last summer.
"We are very disappointed in the judge's conclusion," said Kathleen Walsh, the ARB's general counsel. She said the ruling would be considered by the air board by early summer.
The decision does not affect a separate suit filed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency seeking a nationwide Toyota recall of about 2.2 million vehicles for the same reasons.
The state ARB had sought to force Toyota Motor Corp. to recall and repair 330,000 cars and light trucks made between 1995 and late 1997 and sold in California. The vehicles' emissions systems, the board said, were not properly calibrated to sample for possible fuel vapor leaks that could cause air pollution.
Toyota, however, argued that the systems met all standards that existed when the ARB certified the computerized emissions-sampling system in 1995.
The testing standards changed shortly thereafter. In 1997, when the ARB began randomly sampling the same vehicles, it found that the systems did not take air samples frequently enough.
ARB officials were unable to show, however, that the Toyota vehicles were actually polluting.
In his proposed ruling, Roman found that Toyota withheld information from the ARB in applying for the 1995 certification, but he said that even so, the monitoring systems the company installed were adequate.
He said he found the state's requirements too vague to enforce.
A spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales USA in Torrance said the company is pleased with Roman's decision.