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13 States Join California's Bid to Curb Diesel Emissions

Environment: Northeast, Sunbelt officials act out of frustration with the White House approach to controlling pollution from big trucks.

November 20, 2000|GARY POLAKOVIC | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Disaffection with Clinton administration efforts to control sooty emissions from big trucks has prompted 13 states to join California in pursuit of tougher controls for diesel engines.

In a landmark action, air quality officials from Northeast and Sunbelt states--home to some of the nation's worst smog--are scheduled to announce today in Washington, D.C., that they will require engines to meet stringent testing protocols to cut sooty exhaust between 2004 and 2007.

While the specific measure they seek is but one component in a wider assault on truck pollution, it is rich in symbolism as well as environmental benefits.

The move will mark the first time states have used their authority to act independently of the federal government to reduce exhaust from heavy-duty diesel engines that power big trucks. Under federal law, states are allowed to take such action as long as they proceed in concert with California, which has long been allowed to impose tougher air pollution requirements than the rest of the country. California officials are expected to adopt a model regulation next month.

The proposal by the states would slash emissions from diesel trucks by 27 tons daily in California and New York alone--reductions that many areas must have if they hope to meet federal deadlines for achieving healthful air before the end of the decade.

Without rigorous engine-testing methods for the nearly 2 million trucks on California roads, it would be impossible for Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley to comply with Clean Air Act deadlines and tremendously difficult for the Los Angeles region, according to state air quality officials.

"This action will prevent a tremendous amount of pollution and result in huge air quality benefits for the entire country," said S. William Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators, which represents the nation's air pollution agencies. "California is leading the way for states around the country and is filling a gap that exists in environmental health protection programs."

In addition to California, participants in the so-called multistate clean diesel initiative include New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Nevada.

Diesel-powered trucks and buses are a major pollution source and target of complaints from motorists and pedestrians who gag on clouds of carbon soot and gas. Diesel exhaust includes a nitrogen-based gas that contributes to smog and is a prime source of tiny particles that create haze and have been linked to cancer.

Although heavy-duty engines are cleaner today, they have not been controlled as extensively as cars or many factories, in large part because their reliability, fuel efficiency and service to U.S. commerce make them difficult to replace.

Ironically, it was a landmark legal settlement that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department reached with seven diesel engine makers in 1998 to cut emissions that sparked objections from the states and environmentalists.

The federal government had charged engine makers with intentionally putting "defeat devices" on their engines that produced substantially more nitrogen oxide emissions during use on the open road than during the EPA's emissions tests. The devices changed the way fuel is injected into the engine, causing fuel efficiency to improve but emissions to surge. About 1.3 million of those trucks are still in use and produce as much pollution as 65 million cars, according to air quality officials.

The companies admitted no wrongdoing and opted to settle the case for $1 billion in fines, environmental improvement projects and cleaner engines--the largest civil penalty ever imposed for violations of an environmental law.

The companies, which produce 95% of all the motors used in trucks and buses, include Detroit Diesel Corp., Cummins Engine Co. Inc., Caterpillar Inc., Mack Trucks Inc., Renault Vehicules Industriels, Volvo Truck Corp. and Navistar International.

The agreement triggered howls of protests from environmentalists and state smog-fighters, who say the Clinton administration gave away too much in the deal. They have spent the past two years preparing strategies to plug a perceived loophole in the agreement.

Specifically, the agreement imposed a testing requirement until 2004 to ensure that engines perform nearly as cleanly on the open road as when the motors come off the assembly line. After October 2004, engine makers no longer have to meet that test. Then, in 2007, new federal requirements take effect.

During the interim three-year period, air quality officials fear emissions will shoot up. Consequently, they are pursuing their own regulations to ensure that new engines sold in those jurisdictions continue to meet the requirement. The California Air Resources Board will consider the first such measure at its Dec. 7 meeting in Sacramento.

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