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Diesel Debate Is Set to ignite

California regulators are about to vote on costly exhaust curbs.

December 11, 2008|Margot Roosevelt | Roosevelt is a Times staff writer.

Two decades ago, Rosa Vielmas, young and hopeful, moved to Riverside County for cleaner air. Goodbye to smoggy East Los Angeles. Hello to Mira Loma, an unincorporated speck of a village, and a one-story stucco bungalow with a yard. "We could see the stars," she recalled.

But that was before Mira Loma became one of Southern California's "diesel death zones," as activists call the truck-choked freeways and distribution hubs that fan out from the massive ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Today, a blanket of smog and dust smothers Mira Loma's grimy subdivisions. "You think the warehouses will bring work and money," said Vielmas, 44, who became a community organizer after her two grandsons developed asthma, which she blames on diesel pollution. "The cost of industrialization -- we are paying for it with our health."

This week, a decades-long struggle between California regulators and the national trucking industry will come to a head in Sacramento when the Air Resources Board votes on whether to require owners to fit about 230,000 heavy-duty trucks with diesel exhaust traps and replace about 350,000 older, dirty engines over the next 15 years.

Big-rig crackdown

The crackdown is unprecedented: No other state requires existing trucks to be retrofitted or retired. And it raises thorny interstate commerce issues: Any big rig that travels through California, no matter where it is registered, would be affected.

At a cost of $5.5 billion, the diesel rule, which covers trucks and buses, would be the most expensive air pollution regulation ever adopted in California.

Regulators say, however, that the cost of failing to act would be far higher. Heavy-duty rigs are responsible for a third of all the smog in California. State officials project that the new rule would save 9,400 lives between 2010, when it takes effect, and 2025. With tens of thousands of hospital admissions linked to air pollution, Californians would save up to $68 billion in healthcare costs in the first 15 years, according to economists for the air board.

Last week, 17 national and state health groups, including the American Heart Assn., the American Cancer Society and the California Medical Assn., called for passage of the rule, noting that half of all Californians live within a mile of a freeway.

"These pollutants are taking a serious toll on California's public health," they wrote to the air board, adding that diesel exhaust can cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease, cancer and premature death.

But with the nation spiraling into recession, employment plunging and credit scarce, is this the time to impose a costly regulation on a vital industry?

Fleet owners have held news conferences in Ontario, Bakersfield, Fresno and other cities, demanding that the rule be relaxed and postponed.

Diesel traps cost up to $15,000, a stiff burden for small operators, many of whom are struggling to meet payments on trucks worth up to $130,000 each. And big rigs can be driven for as long as 25 years, so replacing them early would be expensive.

"This rule will likely put me out of business and over 60 people out of work," Ron Silva, chief executive of Westar Transport in Fresno County, told the Air Resources Board. "This rule can cripple the California economy as we know it. . . . Farmers will not be able to afford to have the crops hauled out of the field."

If shipping fees rise, Southern California ports, which handle 40% of the nation's containerized imports, could lose business to Canadian and East Coast terminals. Out-of-state truckers are already threatening to stay away. "As you regulate more, the more we will refuse your freight," warned Nathan Peaslee, a Michigan driver who hauls potato chips and televisions.

The state is promising truckers more than $1 billion in subsidies to make the transition. Nonetheless, the American Trucking Assn. is expected to fight the rule in court. Air board lawyers are confident the state can fend off a legal challenge. Judges, they say, will take into account the fact that California cannot meet a federal mandate to clean its air without a tough diesel rule.

In Mira Loma, the trade-offs are etched in stark relief.

Stop by the one-bedroom cottage where Vielmas' daughter, Ana Gomez, 23, cares for her 2-year-old son Julio. Gomez's husband has a job painting buses at a nearby depot.

But Julio pays the price of pollution. On the kitchen table is a bill for asthma drugs and a nebulizer that sprays a mist of medication through a face mask. "Sometimes he chokes and turns purple," Gomez said. "I have to take him to the hospital."

There is no history of asthma in the family. Vielmas and Gomez blame the trucks. Pollution is known to aggravate asthma symptoms although the causes of asthma remain a subject of debate.

"We're known as the 'Warehouse Capital of Southern California,' " said Vielmas, speaking Spanish. A five-minute drive from home, acres of shipping terminals surround a Union Pacific rail yard. Stacks of steel containers roll along the tracks.

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