Last year, about 60,000 vehicles in the Akron-Cleveland area failed initial E-Check emissions tests.
Most of those cars returned to E-Check stations for a successful recheck or received a waiver, qualifying the vehicle for license-plate stickers to operate on the road another year.
However, about one in five of those pollution-spewing cars and light trucks — 11,410 to be exact — disappeared.
They never received a successful recheck, waiver or extension and no one knows what happened to them.
Some might be parked in driveways, garages and backyards. Some might have been traded in for another vehicle, scrapped or sold for parts.
But there is a strong likelihood that many of those 11,410 vehicles were sold and re-registered outside of the area where E-Check is required: Summit, Portage, Medina, Cuyahoga, Lake, Lorain and Geauga counties.
Those vehicles might have moved outside the E-Check area, improving air quality here but adding significantly to air pollution elsewhere, or they could be close enough to be driving back into the Akron-Cleveland area, continuing to add to our problem.
Even though the E-Check failure reports include the name of the owner and Vehicle Identification Number — or VIN — that information is never matched by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency with Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles records.
There are no requirements under the federal Clean Air Act to find out where those vehicles went, and no one has been asking.
The Ohio EPA said in a report: ''It is difficult to track what happens to these vehicles.''
Those 11,410 vehicles — 19.1 percent of the 59,828 vehicles that failed the initial screening in 2008 — are only the tip of the environmental iceberg.
Similar numbers disappeared in the two previous years, said spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer of the Ohio EPA.
In 2007, it was 13,030 and in 2006, it was 12,387, according to the EPA.
In 2005 and 2004, when Dayton and Cincinnati areas were part of the E-Check initiative to reduce air pollution, the numbers were much higher: 38,021 and 41,728, respectively.
That means that Ohio cannot account for about 116,000 polluting vehicles since 2004.
Pushing problem around
Many environmental planners and advocates, informed of the numbers, suggested that failure to track those vehicles might be exacerbating Ohio's air-quality problems.
Among them is Amy Wainright, a clean-air planner with the Cleveland-based Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency. Her agency's responsibilities include dealing with air pollution in the Cleveland region.
The number of missing cars and trucks suggests that ''we're pushing dirty, polluting vehicles underground . . . and it's troubling that we might just be moving the pollution around,'' Wainright said.
The figures are ''pretty disturbing,'' said John A. Paul, head of the Dayton-based Regional Air Pollution Control Agency and a nationally known clean-air expert.
The fact that so many vehicles cannot be traced is ''a giant loophole,'' he said.
''That is potentially a really big problem,'' said David Celebrezze of the Columbus-based Ohio Environmental Council. ''It does seem like something that should be tracked, just so we are not moving the pollution around. ''
Frank Markunas, interim director of the Akron Regional Air Quality Management District, said he suspects that up to 60 percent of those 11,410 vehicles are sold in places like Stark, Wayne, Trumbull, Erie and Ashland counties, all counties where E-Check is not required.
But it is troubling that no one knows what happened to those vehicles, said Markunas, whose agency handles air pollution in Summit, Medina and Portage counties.
''That's a lot of cars when you add them up,'' he said.
EPA spokeswoman Griesmer said her agency cannot explain where the 11,410 vehicles went — with any certainty.
''Some were likely traded in. Some were scrapped. Some may be stored. Some may have been sold in counties without E-Check,'' she said. ''We just do not know.''
'No red flags'
It has not been an issue with the U.S. EPA that oversees the state's vehicle testing program, she said.
The problem is ''on the radar screen as an issue, but it's not seen as a critical issue,'' said Frank Acevedo, an air specialist with the U.S. EPA in its Chicago regional office. ''It's not sending up red flags.''
Some vehicles are unaccounted for after failing E-Check tests and even the federal EPA has no idea what happens to them, he said.
''Yes, there's a certain percentage that disappear . . . but there's nothing to say it's a huge problem,'' he said.
What's happening in Ohio is happening in other areas with vehicle testing, Acevedo said. Some states, including Michigan and some East Coast states, have been more aggressive tracking down missing vehicles, he said.
What's happening is ''not unique to Ohio . . . but it is a significant problem,'' said Bill Becker of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies in Washington, D.C.
Dirty vehicles are as much of a problem as coal-burning power plants, cement kilns, refineries, coke ovens or dry cleaners and impact human health, he said.
The movement of dirty vehicles is ''not inconsequential'' and might make it difficult for Ohio counties to comply with tighter federal limits next year for the pollutant ozone that causes smoggy air and breathing problems for children, the elderly and asthmatics.
The E-Check program began in late 1995 because the Akron-Cleveland, Cincinnati and Dayton areas failed to comply with federal limits for ozone.
Always a political hot potato and unpopular with the public, the testing once cost $19.50 but is now free to motorists.
The Bureau of Motor Vehicles notifies owners months in advance if their cars or trucks require an environmental test before applying for the annual registration sticker. The test is conducted by a private contractor who includes the VIN and the owner's name in the test report.
However, the regulations don't require the contractor to report the results directly to the BMV — the owner instead is required to present the test report to the bureau at registration time.
The Bureau of Motor Vehicles could use the VINs from the E-Check tests to track vehicles, but that would be a time-consuming and costly process that the state has not pursued, Griesmer said.
That answer wasn't good enough for state Sen. Tim Grendell, R-Chesterland.
Looking for answers
A longtime critic of E-Check, he was troubled when informed by the Beacon Journal last week of the number of missing vehicles.
''We're forced to have E-Check to clean our air and yet the state is sanctioning cars in some counties that it knows are polluters . . . That's an amazing position for the EPA,'' Grendell said.
The fact that cars could be part of an exodus across county lines is ''troubling,'' he said.
In the initial interview, Grendell said he intends to explore changing the law to make it more difficult to move vehicles to other counties.
''There's a real hole in our laws right now,'' he said.
He arranged a midweek meeting with the BMV and EPA and asked the agencies to provide the vehicle identification numbers for missing cars and trucks and their current locations.
The results are due back in about two weeks and should provide a better picture of what's happened to the missing vehicles, he said.
''What's happening now is ridiculous,'' he added.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.