Clean Air Car Check

Lake Superior Judge John Sedia is set to decide in coming days whether a lawsuit seeking to eliminate the vehicle emissions testing mandate in Lake and Porter counties can go forward.

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HAMMOND — The fate of the latest in a series of seemingly never-ending attempts to eliminate the vehicle emissions testing mandate in Lake and Porter counties could be decided in the coming days.

On Tuesday, Lake Superior Judge John Sedia heard oral arguments over whether a challenge to the emissions testing program, filed by all seven members of the Lake County Council, can go forward.

Merrillville attorney Gerry Bishop, representing the council members, claimed the biannual emissions test is unconstitutional because it unlawfully treats Indiana motorists whose vehicles are registered in Lake and Porter counties differently than motorists living in the state's 90 other counties where emissions testing is not required.

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He likened the emissions testing program to a mystery that's simply become part of life in the Region without anyone really knowing why. Permitting the lawsuit to continue would take a step toward solving the mystery, he said.

Specifically, Bishop said a trial would give Region residents and officials an opportunity to better understand why only Northwest Indiana drivers are forced to test their vehicles, whether the testing is doing any good, and to get sworn testimony about what it would take to end the program — assuming it's not deemed unconstitutional.

On the other hand, Indiana Deputy Attorney General Courtney Abshire urged the judge to dismiss the council members' lawsuit.

She said, as a preliminary matter, the defendants in the case — the directors of Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, as well as the state generally — are in no position to grant the relief sought by the plaintiffs because the vehicle emissions testing program in Lake and Porter counties is required by federal law and regulations.

Abshire also said the state has a rational basis for treating Lake and Porter counties differently because it's in the state's interest to comply with federal law, which obligates regions classified as "nonattainment" for ozone pollution to establish a motor vehicle inspection and maintenance program.

She noted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers Lake and Porter counties part of the Chicago region for air quality purposes, and vehicle emission testing similarly is required as a condition of vehicle registration for all motorists in the Illinois counties of Cook, DuPage, and Lake, as well as selected Illinois motorists living in Kane, Kendall, McHenry and Will counties.

Moreover, even if the Chicago area, including Northwest Indiana, reached the federal attainment level for ozone pollution, the vehicle emissions testing program still would need to continue indefinitely under an EPA regulation designed to prevent backsliding on air quality achievements, Abshire said.

Ozone is a pollutant produced by vehicle emissions that can cause breathing difficulties for children, the elderly and individuals with lung disease.

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Following oral arguments, Sedia said he plans to "get out a ruling as quickly as I can," without promising a specific date for a decision.

The Region's vehicle emissions testing mandate consistently has been a bugaboo for Northwest Indiana's legislative delegation at the Statehouse, in addition to this lawsuit filed by Lake County Council members.

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Multiple study committees have been commissioned to look into the requirement, various House and Senate resolutions pleading with the EPA to end the mandate have been adopted, and innumerable promises by lawmakers to "do something" all have resulted in no changes to the program in recent years.

State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said during a 2018 hearing on the issue that it's unfortunate the federal government refuses to recognize that most ozone in Northwest Indiana is caused by the 186,752 cars and trucks passing through every day on Interstate 80/94, and not by vehicles driven locally.

He said "until there's a major change in how EPA thinks" all the complaining in the world isn't going to make much of a difference.

State Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, who has been working on Region air pollution issues since 1980, reluctantly admitted during the hearing that he concurred with Soliday's conclusion.

"I think we're going to be in this for a long, long time," he said.

This article originally ran on nwitimes.com.

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