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A Step Against Diesel Fumes

October 23, 1998

The record settlement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the makers of truck engines holds promise for cleaner-running trucks--but unfortunately, not right away.

Under the agreement announced Thursday, diesel engine manufacturers will pay out more than $1 billion, including $83.4 million in fines, to settle charges that they illegally spewed tons of pollution into the air. And new trucks will eventually become much cleaner.

The civil penalties alone are the largest in environmental enforcement history, according to federal officials. In that sense, the deal is a welcome signal that the EPA is serious about cleaning up diesel pollution, a major health risk to children, the elderly and those with respiratory diseases.

The settlement results from charges brought by the EPA and the Justice Department that the seven largest truck engine companies violated the federal Clean Air Act by equipping diesel engines with so-called "defeat devices." These computerized controls ensured that the engines ran cleanly during federally mandated emissions tests. However, the devices allowed the trucks when cruising on the highway to use fuel more efficiently while emitting more pollutants.

The deal does not require immediate action to recall and fix dirty engines in the 1.3 million trucks now on the road that, federal officials allege, emit illegal levels of pollutants. These vehicles represent 95% of the national truck fleet. Instead, as these trucks need overhauls, operators will be required to rebuild the engines to cleaner standards. Because truck engines generally have a road life of about three years, they may continue to spew massive volumes of smog-causing diesel exhaust for quite a while. For Californians, who are exposed to 40% of the estimated 3 million extra tons of pollution these trucks produce nationally, that's not great news.

As part of Thursday's agreement, the seven manufacturers will subject their new engines to tougher tests that measure emissions as if the trucks were actually on the highway. The companies have committed some $835 million to produce cleaner engines and $100 million for other environmental projects. Most significantly, they agreed that all engines made after October 2002 will meet emission standards that were supposed to go into effect 14 months later, in 2004. The stepped-up timetable will be important if the Los Angeles Basin, with so many trucks on the road, is to comply with federal air goals on time.

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