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Eliminating E-check only positive if we have clean air

There were a lot of happy people Feb. 22 when the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency recommended the elimination of the E-check system in southern Ohio.

But it's too early to celebrate, and even residents who don't live in E-check counties will want to pay attention to how the state decides to meet its clean air goals. At least one of the ideas floating around Columbus would have all Ohio residents pay an annual fee.

It was interesting to watch some of my legislative colleagues rush to the media to make sure they got their name in the same story that was explaining the demise of E-check. There seems to be an inverse relationship between the speed with which some people rush to the media and their knowledge about the issue. The less they know the faster they run to the media.

Sometimes I feel like I know more about E-check than I would like.

Shortly after taking office the Speaker of the House set up a special E-check subcommittee to study the issue. I was not a member, but I started attending the meetings. Since I was at more of the meetings than some of the members, I was put on the committee. I even read the E-check contract between the state and Envirotest Systems, the contractor chosen to conduct the tests.

I'm not a lawyer, but when I need one I'm going to find the person who wrote that contract. What a great deal - for the contractor. When House members realized we could not void the contract without outrageous penalties, legislators passed a law requiring the Ohio EPA to come to the legislature before renewing the contract with Envirotest Systems. The contract expires December 31 of this year. That is why the EPA is making recommendations now. The agency would like some direction from the legislature by July 1.

As the chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, I will get to visit the E-check issue all over again, and in greater detail. Our first hearing is March 2.

One of the advantages of being a chairman of a committee is you get advance notice of issues. The EPA was kind enough to brief me two weeks ago on the status of E-check. One of the things I was reminded about during that briefing is one of the reasons those not facing E-check should be concerned.

Residents in four counties in southern Ohio currently participate in E-check - Clermont, Hamilton, Butler and Warren.

All are suburban Cincinnati communities. Under the more stringent eight-hour ozone standards issued by the U.S. EPA, an additional 19 counties would be required to undertake additional efforts to clean the air.

Brown County is the only other county in my Senate district that would be affected. However, the Ohio EPA has requested that county be removed from the requirement because it is so rural. Residents in Adams, Scioto and Lawrence counties are not affected directly at this time.

But eliminating E-check means the state must find other ways to clean the air. Ohio EPA will need to replace E-Check with additional controls on other types of air pollution sources. The agency has provided a list of options to the legislature that includes emissions reductions from industry, power plants, or consumer products, or the use of cleaner-burning gasoline.

Estimates are this gas would cost an additional two or three cents a gallon and would only be used during the summer months when smog is a problem. It's too early to tell where this gasoline will be sold in southern Ohio.

If one State Representative has his way, the state will raise license plate fees an additional $20 for all Ohio residents to provide money for industry to install air pollution control equipment.

Whatever the outcome, you can be sure there will be a lot of debate on how to meet the federal clean air mandates. Some of this hot air may contribute to the smog problem.

You may not live in an affected county now, but you may be participating in a regional solution before too long.

Senator Tom Niehaus represents the western portion of Lawrence County. To contact him, call 614-466-8082, e-mail him at tniehaus@mailr.sen.state.oh.us, or write to him at the Ohio Senate, Room 38, Statehouse, Columbus OH 43215. Please include your home telephone.