Environmental Initiative, along with some partnering organizations, is expanding its work to make Minnesota's vehicles cleaner, safer and more energy efficient.

This latest work comes 15 years after the same partners retrofitted the first of 4,500 diesel school buses, trucks and off-road equipment as part of what Environmental Initiative called Project Green Fleet.

Environmental Initiative, or EI, is financed by Flint Hills Resources with support from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the city of Minneapolis. The group has now launched Project CAR (Clean Air Repairs) with designs on fixing older passenger cars, trucks and vans that cause 90% of vehicle emissions.

Last week, technicians worked on several vehicles of working-poor customers of the Lift Garage on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis that need tires, batteries, fluid changes and the like. The owners were cleared based on financial need to get additional pollution-control work through Project CAR.

"Our customers will pay $500 on average for tires, brakes, batteries or other critical repairs so they can get to work," said JoHanna Smrcina, operations director at the Lift. "Now we can say, you also need a catalytic converter or oxygen sensor and Project CAR will pay."

Only about 70 cars have gotten the Project CAR pollution-remediation treatment so far this year in a slow ramp-up. If past is precedent, this matters.

Project Green Fleet, which similarly started small, has retrofitted 3,200 school buses with emissions-depleting equipment, said Gillian Greenberg, a project coordinator at EI. That has allowed 300,000 school kids to breathe cleaner air and reduced asthma and other illnesses.

What's more, 1,400 heavy-duty diesel engines in trucks, buses and off-road equipment were retrofitted. That equals removing 750,000 cars from state roads.

"Project CAR [will] help our environment, energize our economy and improve health for vulnerable citizens," said Bill Droessler, director of clean air programs at Environmental Initiative. "We find practical things … that make sense economically and environmentally. We're also trying for … greater outcomes in overburdened communities [of] lower-income people of color who cope with more pollution."

The Minnesota Department of Health and MPCA say studies prove poor air quality disproportionately affects people living in poverty. Project CAR funds repairs to four priority emission-control systems: catalytic converters, evaporative emission control (EVAP) systems, oxygen sensors and exhaust gas recirculation valves. Repairs initially are provided through the Lift and Newgate School in Minneapolis; Cars for Neighbors in Blaine, and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Small Vehicle Garage in Cass Lake.

"Cost is the No. 1 barrier for low-income Minnesotans considering car repairs," Smrcina said. "Project CAR allows them to improve the safety and efficiency of their vehicles at little or no cost."

The Lift is a particularly interesting partner in this venture. The seven-year-old nonprofit garage was founded by a social worker, Cathy Heying, who is a Dunwoody College-trained auto mechanic. Located at Hiawatha Avenue and E. Lake Street, the Lift employs several mechanics and works with people who pay about one-third of full price. About two-thirds of its $1.3 million annual budget comes from philanthropy.

Heying knows the loss of a reliable vehicle often means a loss of job and access to day care, followed by apartment eviction and poverty for a single parent. Seeing those folks, who generally make less than $15 an hour or who are out of work, contribute something to repair a car and leave in a safer vehicle is empowering for the customers as well as the mechanics. The customers pay $15 an hour for the subsidized labor, compared to $100 or so an hour at big, commercial garages. Parts are sold at cost at the Lift.

Geoff Glasrud, manufacturing manager at the Flint Hills refinery, said Project CAR continues the company's support of "creative ways to keep our air and water clean and safe for everyone."

The Flint Hills oil refinery in Rosemount has cleaned up its own operation over the past decade after significant pollution violations in the past. Last year, Flint Hills completed a $400 million, multiyear project that cut electricity consumption and pollution emissions while increasing output of gasoline and jet fuel.

The Flint Hills refinery, known as Pine Bend and owned by Koch Industries, is the 11th-largest refinery in the United States. It supplies more than 50% of the motor fuel sold in Minnesota and around 40% sold in Wisconsin.

Project CAR also is sponsored by Clean Air Minnesota, which is sponsored by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and managed by EI.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. Reach him at nstanthony@startribune.com.