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California eases diesel soot crackdown

The construction industry gets a break, but the rules remain the nation's toughest.

December 18, 2010|By Margot Roosevelt, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — California regulators on Friday delayed the state's pioneering crackdown on diesel soot from trucks and construction equipment, bowing to industry demands for relief during a stubborn economic recession.

The newly relaxed rules "balance the needs of citizens for cleaner air," said Mary D. Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board. "And they provide meaningful relief to industries that are very hard hit."

Even with the roll-back, the rules are the toughest in the nation and will cost the trucking and construction industries an estimated $3.8 billion. They will slash diesel soot emissions by half in four years and by 70% over the next decade, Nichols said.

Under the revised standards, passed unanimously by the 11-member board, filters must be installed in nearly all 250,000 of the state's heaviest trucks must install filters by 2014, a year later than first envisioned. The original rules, passed in 2008, would also have required filters on 150,000 medium-weight trucks. Under the new rule, however, the state's fleet of medium-weight trucks, however, must be retired when they are 20 years old, under the new rule. By 2023, no trucks older than the 2010 model year — which are 90% cleaner than older models because of due to new federal engine standards — may operate in the state.

Filters must also be installed in the state's standard-sized school buses by 2014, the board said.

The revised rules require no filters on construction equipment, including back hoes, graders, large forklifts and front loaders, but they do set a 2023 retirement date for more than two-thirds of the 150,000-vehicle diesel construction fleet. The board acknowledged last year that it had overestimated the emissions from off-road equipment.

California, which has some of the nation's dirtiest air and high rates of asthma and other pulmonary ailments, is the only state to require filters for existing big rigs and the retirement of older trucks. That effort has sparked fierce opposition from truckers across the state.

Federal standards apply only to new engines, but California is allowed to enact stricter rules because its air pollution laws were in effect before federal clean air legislation was enacted more than three decades ago.

In a seven-hour hearing, environmentalists and public health groups mostly greeted the changes with resignation, acknowledging that the recession has slashed emissions in the last three years by idling equipment in the economic downturn.

The roll-back "will save companies money," said Don Anair, senior engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But communities will have to wait longer for protection from toxic diesel pollution."

Truckers and construction company officials mostly praised the new rules, which will cost 60% less than the original regulations. "Four of every 10 construction workers in California have lost their jobs," said Michael Kennedy, general counsel of the Associated General Contractors of America. "It is difficult to revisit decisions already made. This is an example of good government."

The air board's crackdown on diesel has had strong political support, especially in such neighborhoods as those around the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where diesel fumes are blamed for high rates of asthma and cancer.

Former California Senate majority leader Richard Polanco testified on behalf of the Legislature's 23-member Latino caucus and several other legislators, saying that the rules for construction equipment should not be rolled back and noting that it would inflict harm on companies that make filters.

"I understand there is an economic recession," he said. "Diesel is a toxic air contaminant [and] the proposed changes go in the wrong direction. We should protect green jobs, not just one industry."

Jared Blumenfeld, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator, expressed concern last month that the rollback of diesel rules would make it difficult to meet federal air quality standards for the San Joaquin Valley and the South Coast district, which includes Orange County and parts of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

But air board staff said the new rules would allow those regions, the state's most polluted, to meet air quality standards by the federal deadline of 2014, thus avoiding punitive action, including the withholding of highway money, that could result from violating federal caps.

Among the more than 100 witnesses at Friday's hearing, however, many noted that an economic upturn probably would put more diesel equipment back into operation, frustrating those expectations.

"The recession-induced reductions in truck pollution are almost imperceptible in the most populous area, Southern California," said Diane Bailey, a Natural Resources Defense Fund scientist. "When the economy does recover, we'll see a spike in diesel emissions as a dirty, older fleet goes back to work, since investments in clean, new equipment will have slowed."

Many of the drivers and owners of smaller trucks who testified, however, said their business was down by more than half. Many said they were close to bankruptcy and could not afford to buy filters or new trucks, even under a relaxed schedule.

"To afford new trucks, we'd have to cancel our employees' health insurance," said Ed Walker of Robinson Enterprises, who operates logging trucks in Nevada City, Calif.

margot.roosevelt@latimes.com

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