Nabbing Colorado's worst polluters through RapidScreen

The dirty truth.

As reported in this week's Off-Limits column, Colorado’s RapidScreen emissions project has scanned hundreds of thousands of metro-area tailpipes at some of the busiest off ramps and roadways since 2003. The goal of the program, which was outsourced to Envirotest Systems Corporation, is to increase the efficiency of emissions testing by rewarding cars – and their owners -- that pass the involuntary test twice within a ten-month span.

RapidScreen vans use infrared and ultraviolet beams to match each passing vehicle’s level of hazardous fumes to a photo of its license plate. Clean drivers are then notified by mail of the results and can avoid a trip to a testing facility as long as they register their car normally.

While boasting a 98 percent accuracy rate, officials with Air Care Colorado, as the program is called, were quick to allay fears of automotive invasiveness, pointing out that the results could be overturned during a normal screening and that drivers weren’t obligated to use RapidScreen. But with more than a dozen vans stationed along I-25, I-70, C-470 and elsewhere, Envirotest quickly amassed an enormous catalogue of emissions information, which it automatically shares with the state’s driver registration database.

The result? The "clean screen" program was recently joined by "dirty screen," its more aggressive twin brother.

"We don’t really promote the dirty screen program as it’s a pilot [program] and it just began a few months ago," says Envirotest spokeswoman Renee Allen. Even so, anyone who is flagged as a high polluter will get a letter from the State Department of Revenue and be required to have that vehicle tested and fixed in order to register it again. "And if you don’t comply, it’s a punitive program," she adds.

The point, Allen says, is to catch polluters earlier and, in some cases, to help them fix the problem. Drivers who comply are often eligible to receive repair funding, says Ken Lloyd, Executive Director of the Regional Air Quality Council (RAQC). Those who don’t face fines.

"We get a list of people who have failed the test and we offer to repair or retire their vehicle if it can’t be repaired," Lloyd says of the RAQC’s Repair Your Air program. "Right now we’ll pay up to $1,000. Most of the repairs are less than that, less than $500. If the car requires more than $1,000 to repair, then we would offer to buy it for $1,000 if the owner wanted to take advantage of that to get it off the road." The money comes from a federal grant that predates RapidScreen and will be available for most of the rest of this year.

The Department of Revenue has sent letters to 146 auto owners. Of those, 58 drivers have had their registrations suspended and 16 are pending suspension.

Perhaps the most famous repairs conducted in the Repair Your Air program belong to Milo Struble, a mid-seventies retiree who, along with his 1989 Oldsmobile Cutlass, still elicits laughter from staff members at Envirotest and the RAQC. After Struble’s Cutlass tested well over the limit as he drove onto I-70 from Kipling, he received a notice in the mail offering him funds to fix his car. Struble felt that the notice was a fake, "free-money" scam, refused to believe that the RAQC was a government agency and called the staff to tell them that they were not reputable. After considerable discussions with the staff, Struble recanted his claims of pervasive scamming and became the first recipient of funds under the voluntary initiative.

To date, the RAQC estimates that 25 owners have taken the $1,000 payout for cars too damaged to repair. Most of the worst polluters aren’t noticeably spewing out dark clouds on the highway, but "regular" looking cars that have sustained serious internal damage or wear, often resulting in safety concerns, adds Repair Your Air program manager Steve McCannon.

He recalls a particular test when a mother, whose children had been repeatedly getting sick on their drive to soccer practice, had her car flagged by a remote sensing unit. When she brought her car in for a confirmatory test, technicians found a massive evaporative gas leak that was sending raw fuel fumes into the car; it had the potential to make the children seriously ill.

The remote sensing measurement of evaporative emissions -- emissions that may not come from the tailpipe but otherwise surround the car and permeate the cabin -- is an "unanticipated benefit" of the screening process, says Christopher Dann, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. And one that has caught the attention of federal researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The emerging crackdown on dirty drivers comes after the state legislature allocated additional resources to expand the clean screen program in 2006. Supplemented in part by registration taxes collected from compliant drivers, the program now helps fund the move to catch dirty drivers. Though Envirotest publishes the locations of their vans, their placement makes them difficult for coughing tailpipes to avoid, and while the details of the high emitter program are itemized in a subsection of the state’s air pollution website, no mention is made of the dirty screen by Air Care Colorado. In answering the online question, "What happens if I don’t pass?", their website still notes, "Nothing. RapidScreen is NOT a program that penalizes drivers." – Joe Horton

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes