By John Schroyer, Face The State
If you drive on I-25, you’ve probably seen a white van or two sitting on the side of an entry ramp, or maybe an exit. There are several of them scattered around Denver. They’re dirty white, with an intake system on a tripod next to the road. Drive by one of them, and in a split-second, it scans your car’s tailpipe emissions. If we had more of those vans in Denver, then most of us wouldn’t have to spend hours in line every two years to get our emissions tested.
Professor Don Stedman, a British expatriate and professor of chemistry at the University of Denver, created the technology that the vans use. Though the vans are owned and operated by Rapidscreen, they’re Stedman’s babies, and he’s been trying to get Colorado to use more of them for years. It’s a cinch for them to identify cars with dirty emissions, and since only 5 percent of cars on the road are responsible for a disproportionate share of all auto emissions, Stedman’s system would save the other 95 percent of us from having to wait in line at one of metro Denver’s dreaded emissions-testing centers.
There’s nothing really revolutionary about it, said Stedman, who contrasted it with the current testing regime.
“It’s the same principle and system. They put your car on a treadmill and run your car,” said Stedman. “I have a free treadmill. It’s called the Earth.”
Just one van tests 5,000 cars per day, which would easily cover the metro area if you place enough of them at strategic points throughout the nine-county air shed (Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson, Weld, Larimer, Broomfield and Boulder).
A colleague of Stedman’s, Dr. Doug Lawson, sat on Colorado’s Air Quality Control Board for seven years. He was also a member of a government panel that studied air pollution. He describes himself as a conservative and labeled Stedman a raging liberal, but this is an issue on which they are in complete agreement.
Lawson reinforced Stedman’s numbers and said there’s absolutely no reason to test every single car. And even under the current system, he noted, polluters can slip through the cracks. Of the cars that do fail emissions tests, 20 percent simply don’t show up to be tested again and head back out on the road.
Lawson said it’s as though “we realize we’ve got a problem with people robbing banks, so we decide to interview everyone every other year and ask them if they intend to rob a bank that year, and assuredly, that would stop all the bank robberies.”
In 2006, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers agreed with Stedman and Lawson andpassed a bill that would have replaced the current testing system with Stedman’s vans. But the measure was derailed when the Colorado Department of Health said it wasn’t a feasible option.
“The vans work. It’s the logistics (that are the problem),” said Paul Tourangeau, director of the state health department’s Air Pollution Control Division. “They talk about it as a silver bullet. That’s easy from a scientific standpoint, but from a realistic standpoint, putting this into action is very difficult.”
Tourangeau said that overhauling such a large system would take much more time and money than his department can afford, despite the benefits of such a switch.
When the Legislature told the department to make the change, it undertook a two-year study to see if the vans would work as well as the current system and finally decided they wouldn’t. A formal report will be issued sometime this summer.
Besides, Tourangeau added, his department is already using the vans—there are 18 of them scattered throughout the metro area. But that’s not enough.
Both Lawson and Stedman laughed, and said the real reason the vans haven’t been widely adopted is because of green. Money, that is.
Colorado makes millions of dollars every year off of emissions testing, splitting the $25 fee that motorists pay with the contractor that performs the treadmill test. That can be a powerful incentive to protect the status quo, Lawson and Stedman said.
“It’s a great American system,” said Stedman. “It takes a large amount of money from a lot of people, gives you a little piece of paper that doesn’t really mean a whole lot, and it pays a lot of lobbyists and politicians. So it really works perfectly.”
Lawson said the problem is systemic and begins at the top. There’s the inefficiency and detachment of the EPA. It recently released a new emissions-testing model, called MOVES, and at the same time admitted that the old system (the one Colorado is still using) is “about half as effective as they had previously thought,” Lawson said.
If he had one wish, Lawson said, it would be to convince utility companies like Xcel that he’s right because energy companies are the ones bearing most of the weight when it comes to governmental crackdowns on ozone emissions. If companies knew that they were being hammered while the government isn’t doing everything it can to curb auto emissions, “They’d be outraged,” he said.