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Cleanup Time for Ralphs

June 13, 2002

Two years ago, four local grocery chains, prodded by the state attorney general and environmentalists, signed landmark agreements to convert some of their belching trucks from diesel fuel to cleaner-burning natural gas. Three grocery companies have made good on their commitment or are working on it. Only Ralphs has balked. It owes better to the millions of families who shop in its stores.

Diesel exhaust has been linked to higher rates of cancer, respiratory problems and other ailments. Children who live near the companies' warehouses have found their asthma exacerbated by fumes from the hundreds of diesel trucks that go in and out daily.

As part of the 2000 pacts, the Vons, Albertson's, Stater Bros. and Ralphs grocery chains agreed to convert to natural-gas engines in all of the smaller trucks known as "yard goats" that workers use to move loads around inside their distribution centers. Each company, including Ralphs, has now done that.

The big-rig trucks that haul merchandise between warehouse and store also were part of the agreements. State funding helps defray the $30,000 to convert each truck. Vons has converted 60 new trucks to natural gas; Albertson's and Stater Bros. are on track to convert 25 and 35 trucks, respectively. Ralphs hasn't retooled any of the 25 rigs it promised it would, balking in part because natural gas prices soared after the deal was struck. But gas prices are down again.

Ralphs also said the natural-gas switch became too costly after the state Air Resources Board denied its request for conversion funds. But Ralphs wanted to convert older trucks, some with 100,000 miles on them, and the air board says it only grants money to convert new truck engines. Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and the Natural Resources Defense Council charge that Ralphs knew its application would be rejected. Ralphs says the 2000 agreements permitted it to convert older trucks.

Ralphs' foot-dragging led Lockyer and the NRDC to ask a Los Angeles judge for a contempt citation against the store. Last week, the judge rejected their request, but that shouldn't be the end of the story.

Natural-gas vehicles are becoming a key part of commercial and government fleets. Almost half of all transit buses nationally now run on natural gas, as well as many trash trucks. They pollute less and run well.

Two years ago, Vons, Albertson's and Stater Bros. bargained in good faith. And after Ralphs agreed to the conversion deal, it bought several new diesel trucks for which it probably would have received state funds to switch to natural gas if it had applied. Ralphs should do what it promised.

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To take action: Ralphs Grocery Co.'s corporate headquarters, P.O. Box 54143, Los Angeles, CA 90054; (310) 884-9000 (voice), (310) 884-2600 (fax).

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