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BOSTON–Massachusetts vehicle emissions tests cannot differentiate between cars that emit high levels of pollution and those that run cleanly, according to internal memos from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The documents, released today by New England Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (New England PEER), indicate that state officials have been actively covering up the problem for more than two years.

Email exchanges between DEP officials and the California-based contracting firm Sierra Research, Inc. show that more than half of the cars that failed the Massachusetts emissions test actually passed a similar test that is sanctioned by EPA and used in most states. Sierra Research officials warned DEP in a May 16, 2001 email that the rate of false failures represents “the highest by far ever seen by Sierra.” Similarly, the Massachusetts test may also pass vehicles that emit more than the federally approved level of pollutants. Rather than report these results to EPA, DEP officials attempted to manipulate the data. In August 2001, Sierra Research informed DEP that they had “made some adjustments” to their numbers which would “cut the failure rate by 50 percent,” although only on paper and not in reality.

The yearly emissions tests first took effect in Massachusetts in 1999, after EPA ordered the state to reduce its high levels of carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide in the air. Rather than using tests recommended by EPA, Massachusetts designed its own system relying on private testing facilities that emphasized short turn-around time for customers. Drivers pay the cost of the test.

A separate investigation, performed by the Massachusetts Inspector General’s Office in 2002, found similar results. Despite warnings from these experts, DEP managers continue to administer the faulty test.

“Rather than deal with an expensive, embarrassing problem, DEP decided it would be easier to cook the books,” commented New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, an attorney and former EPA enforcement specialist. “Only a full-scale investigation and the termination of responsible parties will begin to restore the public’s trust in the program.”

PEER is asking Governor Mitt Romney to extend a pledge of non-retaliation against DEP employees who come forward with information about the test flaws and subsequent agency cover-up.


New England PEER obtained the following documents from Massachusetts DEP through a Public Records Act request:

Read the 1999 Memo from DEP to EPA seeking final approval for the Massachusetts Enhanced Emissions and Safety Test Program

Read a May 2001 email from Sierra Research to DEP regarding high false failure rates

Read a June 2001 email from Sierra to DEP stating the cutpoints are arbitrary

Read the February 2003 Massachusetts Inspector General Report

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