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Smog patrols are on the prowl

An AQMD pilot program uses roadside monitors to test emission levels. It may be the face of crackdowns to come.

September 19, 2007|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

If you think your everyday exhaust fumes are a private matter -- maybe your dirty little secret -- you haven't met up with Southern California's new pollution detectives.

In recent weeks, an innocuous white van has been parked on a Los Angeles freeway onramp, as well as other key locations across the region. Inside is new technology in the battle for cleaner air.

The van is loaded with high-tech equipment that uses ultraviolet and infrared sensors to measure the amount of pollution spewing out of the tailpipes of passing cars.

No, you will not get pulled out of your car, handcuffed and sent to the Twin Towers for spewing out too much crud. But you will get a polite letter in the mail, suggesting you volunteer for a program that will pay for up to $500 in emission system control repairs or $1,000 to take your vehicle off the road permanently.

The program began in March and so far 2,000 letters have been sent out, resulting in a couple hundred vehicles being repaired and a few dozen scrapped.

The results so far might sound like small change, but the aim of this pilot program, costing $4 million, is much larger. The measures are part of a future of tough new regulations and enforcement, aimed at getting gross polluting vehicles repaired or off the road.

The remote monitoring program is a pilot project run by the South Coast Air Quality Management District to assess whether it is possible to, on a more sweeping scale, identify vehicles that are out of compliance and to try to figure out why so many cars fall into that category.

It isn't only junk heaps and classic cars that are fouling the air, but sometimes late-model vehicles that have racked up more than 100,000 miles. Some of these vehicles spew out more than 100 times the pollution of a properly functioning, compliant vehicle.

In fact, just 10% of vehicles produce more than 50% of the pollution, said Dean Saito, the agency's manager for the remote monitoring program. As tougher new pollution laws come into effect by 2015 and then 2023, the AQMD will tighten up on a lot of pollution sources.

One big source is cars that actually pass the smog tests that are required every two years for all but the oldest and newest vehicles. A significant fraction are polluting shortly after passing the test. A report last October by a little-known state agency -- the California Inspection & Maintenance Review Committee, a unit of the Department of Consumer Affairs -- found that 40% of the vehicles that failed a smog test and then passed after repairs were made to the emission control system were once again out of compliance just weeks or months later.

In other words, the repairs are not fixing the root cause of the problems or the owners are somehow gaming the system, Saito said.

One scam is the use of "clean pipes," in which a smog test machine is hooked up to the exhaust pipe of a car different from the one that is supposed to be being tested. Another potential problem involves the quick fixes that correct excess emissions only temporarily. An example of that is the installation of a new catalytic converter that cleans up exhaust temporarily, but then becomes fouled by overwhelming engine emissions.

Here's where the smog spies come in. As cars accelerate down an onramp, the sensors measure the output of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide and particulates. The system also images the license plate.

Only the dirtiest 1% or 2% of the vehicles are selected for the letters, under the current pilot project. And compliance is completely voluntary, since the vehicle owners can now ignore the invitation for subsidized repairs. In fact, many people don't want anything to do with the program, officials say.

The nice-guy approach may eventually give way to a tough-guy approach. AQMD has long-range plans to conduct remote sensing on a much larger scale, when far stricter measures will be needed to meet future air quality standards. The idea, obviously, is to not allow problem vehicles to spew out excess pollution for months or years before the next smog test.

Such a monitoring program would not require the use of mobile vans. Fixed sensor stations could check every vehicle driving down a road and electronically transmit the results to government offices.

I asked AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood whether the program has triggered cries that this is Big Brother on the highway. "I don't think we have had that reaction," he said.

But a fair number of people object to any kind of remote sensing, whether it involves detectors for vehicle pollution, radar guns for speeding or red-light cameras in intersections.

For those who insist on skirting the rules, there is even an industry that supplies illegal devices that intentionally defeat emission control systems for muscle car enthusiasts.

In July, the U.S. Department of Justice reached a civil settlement with Illinois-based Casper's Electronics over the company's sale of engine sensors that override an automobile's emission system. The department said the company has sold 44,000 of these defeat devices that have added 7,400 tons of hydrocarbons, 347,000 tons of carbon monoxide and 6,000 tons of nitrogen oxides to U.S. air.

The company agreed to pay a $74,000 civil penalty. Other manufacturers of these devices are under investigation.

What's at stake? Southern California air, some of the worst in the nation, is causing widespread impaired lung function in children, increased heart disease and higher death rates.

Air quality officials warn the region is not on track to meet existing standards and that even tougher new standards will leave "no room for wavering or hesitation."

--

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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