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State Air Board Relaxes Smog Rules for Buses

Vehicles with diesel engines will have until 2010 to comply with new emission standards. Environmentalists decry the reversed decision.

October 28, 2005|Marla Cone and Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writers

Reversing a decision made just last week, the state air quality board Thursday eased a smog standard for transit buses.

Because no diesel engines can comply with an emission standard for new buses that was scheduled to go into effect in 2007, the Air Resources Board decided to delay it until 2010, allowing the buses to emit six times more nitrogen oxides until then.

A week ago, after six hours of debate, the board decided that relaxing the standard would send the wrong message to transit agencies. The board members had thought they could retain the tougher standard and offset any extra emissions by allowing transit agencies to buy diesels only if they installed smog-control devices on some older buses.

But Thursday's reversal came after the board heard from its staff that diesel operators would not be eligible for some critical air-quality funds if they exceeded the standard, said air board spokesman Jerry Martin.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 29, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Emission standard -- An article in Friday's California section said the state Air Resources Board reversed its stand on an emission standard because if the standard were left intact, operators of diesel buses would lose important funding. In fact, operators of buses powered by natural gas would lose the funding.

Environmentalists lambasted the move, saying that the board caved in to transit agencies and was wrong about the funding issues.

California has about 10,000 transit buses. About 60% of them are diesel-powered and many of those are in the Bay Area. Most transit agencies in the Los Angeles Basin operate buses powered by compressed natural gas, but many other agencies elsewhere do not use alternative fuels because constructing fueling stations costs millions of dollars.

Buses powered by natural gas can meet the new standard in 2007, but diesel technology won't comply until 2010.

Later in the day, the board took up debate on whether to scrap a controversial pact with the nation's two largest railroads, amid charges from local air regulators and activists that the pact shields the companies from tougher pollution controls.

Pollution from idling locomotives and other rail equipment has grown in recent years, propelled by the surge in imports from Asia moving through the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex.

Residents near the sprawling rail yards of eastern Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties began lobbying local and state air regulators, urging that emissions be reduced. Locomotives burn diesel fuel, which creates emissions that scientists have linked to a number of health problems, including lung cancer.

More than 60 people opposed to the pact signed up to speak to the board, while 14 -- primarily railroad representatives -- in favor of it did so.

Some opponents arrived at the hearing at 2 p.m. and were still waiting to be heard seven hours later.

Among the opponents who spoke Thursday evening was Long Beach City Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga, who said that the entire council had voted to ask the state board to rescind the deal. She described how her west Long Beach neighborhood is surrounded by train tracks and truck-filled freeways carrying cargo from the port.

"We are in a literal coffin of death," she said. "These railroads run 24/7 -- there is no relief."

State officials have defended the pact they crafted in June with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads, noting that the rail industry is largely regulated by the federal government and that state control is limited.

But the agreement outraged local regulators and environmental groups, who called it a back-room deal.

One of the deal's harshest critics has been Barry Wallerstein, executive director of the South Coast Air Quality District, which regulates air quality in the basin. Wallerstein said state regulators were remiss in entering the pact without public input.

In response, the Air Resources Board held a hearing in the City of Commerce in August that drew more than 300 people.

The pact calls for the railroads to stop the practice of idling nonessential locomotives at rail yards and to conduct health-risk assessments at major yards in the state.

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