California's proposed budget contains a major provision that would weaken air pollution regulations while saving the construction industry millions of dollars.
The measure, largely overlooked in a public debate focused on taxes, would delay requirements for builders to retrofit bulldozers, scrapers and other soot-spewing equipment, slashing by 17% the emissions savings that health advocates had hoped to achieve by 2014.
"There are people who will die because of this delay," said Mary D. Nichols, chairman of the state Air Resources Board.
"It is sad in an era where most people understand that strong environmental standards actually help California's economy as well as public health . . .
"Anti-tax zealots were able to force a weakening of our anti-diesel-pollution standards as the price of a balanced budget."
California's off-road diesel regulations, adopted in 2007, were the first in the nation to require construction companies to retrofit existing heavy equipment.
Diesel machines are responsible each year for an estimated 1,100 premature deaths, more than 1,000 hospitalizations for heart and lung disease, and tens of thousands of asthma attacks in California, according to the Air Resources Board.
The building industry, backed by national groups that fear a precedent could be set in California, had lobbied heavily to stall the diesel rules.
Without retrofitting existing construction vehicles, Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley and other highly polluted regions will be unlikely to meet federal air quality deadlines. Diesel equipment can last 30 years before it is retired.
But a pullback would be "welcome news for the thousands of construction workers that have lost their jobs across the state," said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for Associated General Contractors.
The rule was "well-intended," he said, but "would have forced thousands of small-business owners to replace perfectly good equipment instead of putting Californians back to work."
No public hearings were held on a diesel rule rollback, nor has there been a debate in the state Legislature.
But "there were two years of public hearings on the diesel regulation that is now getting weakened," said Kathryn Phillips of the Environmental Defense Fund. "What the big construction companies couldn't get into the rule in the light of day, [they] managed to get through a back-room deal."
The rollback of the diesel standards would eliminate the sort of "green jobs" that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has championed, Nichols said.
A number of companies had revved up to install tens of thousands of diesel retrofits, a labor-intensive process involving complex new equipment.
Bradley L. Edgar, chief executive of Cleaire Advanced Emissions Controls, a San Leandro company, said that for every five retrofits, a new job is created.
"Most of these jobs are local because the retrofits are local," he said. "We manufacture in San Diego and source many components from California suppliers . . . which translates to economic stimulus."
Environmentalists see little chance of gaining the Legislature's attention amid the budget impasse.
"With the magnitude of the forces at play here, the environmental issues have taken a back seat to taxes," said Bill Magavern, the Sierra Club's California director.
"Reform of the budget process, especially the elimination of the two-thirds requirement for passing budgets and taxes, is desperately needed to prevent this kind of fiscal blackmail."
The budget also suspends state support for local transportation for the remainder of 2009 and into the next five years. That would bring mass-transit funding cuts to $3 billion over the last two budgets.
But several controversial environmental measures sought by Republicans were turned back, including a prohibition on factoring greenhouse gases into state environmental impact reviews and a weakening of pesticide rules.