Residents in eight southeast Michigan counties, including Monroe and Lenawee, may elude mandatory vehicle emission checks after all.
While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still believes the region has excessive smog, the agency this week downgraded the severity classification for the problem, thereby lessening the measures the region would be required to undertake to comply with federal air standards.
The agency's decision Wednesday to scale back the region from "moderate nonattainment" to "marginal nonattainment" could spell relief for those who feared the controversial tailpipe inspection program that officials in Michigan and Ohio have for years recognized as a political football.
Motorists in 14 Ohio counties - including the cities of Cleveland, Akron, Cincinnati, Dayton, and Springfield - are currently subjected to the E-Check emissions program designed to reduce ground-level ozone, or smog.
Portions of Michigan were subjected to vehicle emission checks for nearly a decade until the state disbanded its former program in the mid-1990s.
But Monroe, Lenawee, and all other counties considered for Census purposes to be part of the metropolitan Detroit area were facing the prospect of tailpipe tests again after the EPA announced in April that the region's smog warranted such measures.
The graded scale was a new ranking system unveiled by the agency. Those ranked with a moderate or worse smog problem were to be required to do tailpipe testing.
The only area in Ohio with the new ranking is the Cleveland metropolitan area.
Detroit area officials appealed the EPA's April designation through the Southeast Metropolitan Council of Governments and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
The EPA announced Wednesday that the region had proven its case.
By downgrading the Detroit area's nonattainment designation to marginal, the EPA will give officials there three fewer years to bring the region's air quality levels into compliance. However, those officials will be given more flexibility in deciding how to bring the region back into compliance.
Monroe County Planning Director Royce Maniko said he wasn't surprised at the EPA's decision to bump down the region's severity level but added that it will mean much more work for local officials like himself who sit on a regional task force overseeing air quality.
"They did listen," Mr. Maniko said of the EPA. "We're going to have to do more things in a shorter period of time, but we're up to that task."
The vehicle emissions tests cost an average of about $20 elsewhere in the country, but they can lead to requirements that motorists pay for tune-ups or make other more costly repairs to their vehicles.
Mr. Maniko said a large part of the EPA's April designation was an effect of air quality measurements from one day.
On June 25, 2003, monitors across southeast Michigan exceeded air quality limits for smog by a total of one part per billion, he said.
It was the first air-quality violation for the region in 13 years, Mr. Maniko said.
"It was a real anomaly in the weather. There were places in the Upper Peninsula that [exceeded the air-quality standard] that day," Mr. Maniko explained. "It was just one of those weather days that didn't make a whole lot of sense."
Sue Stetler, a spokesman for SEMCOG, said it is still possible that the region "may do emissions [testing], but as part of a larger program.
"Because we're marginal now, we don't automatically have to do emissions testing," she added.
When EPA announced its original finding in April, SEMCOG officials had filed a separate appeal that would have kept primarily rural Lenawee County from being lumped in with metropolitan Detroit.
That appeal was unsuccessful, said Chuck Hersey, SEMCOG's manager of environmental programs.
"There were some arguments that we could make to keep Lenawee out, but we couldn't make those for Monroe," he said.
Monroe County has one of the nation's largest coal-fired power plants, a facility in Monroe operated by Detroit Edison Co., that is a major contributor to ozone problems.
Lenawee County has no industry that puts as much pollution into the air. But industry is not alone in creating smog. Ground-level ozone is produced by a combination of pollutants from many sources, including smokestacks, vehicles, paints, and solvents.
When a car burns gasoline, for example, exhaust fumes containing smog-forming pollutants rise into the sky.
Mr. Maniko said he and other members of SEMCOG will study the possibility of mandating alternative fuel mixes for motor vehicles, including the use of ethanol or blends currently in use in California as a way to reduce vehicle emissions across southeast Michigan.
He admitted that might lead to even higher gasoline prices in the area.
"We're talking about a 15 percent reduction in [emissions], and that will push our timetable up to 2007," Mr. Maniko said.
"We're looking at what we can do with alternative fuels," Mr. Maniko said. "We're going to look at gasoline first, and then diesel."
Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: