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Off-Road Diesels to Be Subject to Clean-Air Rules

Pollution: For first time, government will target farm and construction equipment. Critics say plan could let some engines escape controls.

June 08, 2002|GARY POLAKOVIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bush administration announced Friday that the federal government will, for the first time, target high-polluting diesel-powered farm and construction equipment, but environmentalists warn that the plan could allow some diesel engines to escape stringent control.

So-called off-road engines, which power bulldozers, steamrollers and tractors, long have been a missing element in the federal efforts to clean the air. Thousands of machines used at construction sites and farms have gone unregulated, posing serious impediments in states such as California that are struggling to meet clean-air goals.

To deal with the problem, the Bush administration outlined a four-prong strategy to target diesel fuel and engines that power the soot-spewing machines. In an unusual step, the proposal is being jointly crafted by the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Environmental Protection Agency. The two agencies will draft a final regulation to be released next year.

"The most significant environmental issues in terms of human health are elevated levels of fine particles. Other than reducing power plant emissions, we have to reduce emissions from these non-road engines. This is a big deal," said Jeffrey R. Holmstead, the EPA's director of air programs.

Among the strategies the Bush administration is considering are giving manufacturers of diesel engines breaks for early introduction of low-polluting machines and credits that they can swap among trucks and buses on the highways and tractors and cranes, for instance, used off-road.

"The whole idea is to push the envelope as far as we can and also provide an incentive to provide cleaner technologies," Holmstead said.

But the credit-trading component of the program has environmentalists and Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, an architect of the Clean Air Act, crying foul. Critics say the plan will allow engine manufacturers the choice of cleaning up either trucks and buses, or farm and construction equipment, rather than demanding maximum reductions from both sectors.

"These reductions in diesel emissions are absolutely essential and should not be traded away," Waxman wrote in a letter sent Friday to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.

Furthermore, environmentalists fear that the credit-trading program could allow the industry to escape a tough new rule governing diesel exhaust from highway vehicles, which the EPA adopted during the Clinton administration and successfully defended in court last month. That measure requires makers of heavy trucks and buses to cut tailpipe emissions by 95% by 2007.

"The proposed emission-trading scheme between non-road diesel engines and diesel trucks threatens to undermine the landmark diesel truck rule," said Frank O'Donnell of the Clean Air Trust. "Both on-road and non-road diesel engines pose a major public health threat, and both need to be cleaned up. One should not be traded off for the other."

Diesel engines used off the highways are tremendous polluters, releasing 20 times as much soot as the latest generation of diesel buses or trucks. They are so dirty that tractors, cranes and steamrollers, among other equipment, produce more soot and smoke than all the vehicles on the nation's highways, according to the EPA.

"You can still find construction equipment dating back to the Korean War," said Jerry Martin, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board.

"The emissions from these vehicles is greater than from all the cars on the road."

In a report to be released Monday, the nation's state and local air quality officials conclude that cleaning up much of the 4 million tons of pollutants released by non-road diesel engines would save 8,522 lives and result in $67 billion in health benefits annually. The state officials have asked the EPA to pass stringent regulations.

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