California diesel exhaust debate heats up

Air board, industry disagree on cost of new standards

News San Diego Union-Tribune June 21, 2007
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Hundreds of people attended a May 25 hearing in San Diego to debate a highly controversial plan to reduce toxins from about 180,000 off-road vehicles used by construction companies, airports, ski resorts and in many other industries, according to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The proposal, being finalized by the state Air Resource Board, will likely become one of the most comprehensive and costly curbs on diesel air pollution in the nation, according to the paper.

Beyond the obvious health effects, its rules would influence whether some regions of the state get federal highway funding and introduce tougher emission controls on old big-rigs, the Union-Tribune reported.

The tougher off-road regulations, which would be phased in between 2009 and 2030, could present companies that do business in the state with a cost of at least $3 billion, the board estimates, according to the paper. An industry-sponsored study puts the price tag at $13 billion or more, however.

Industry officials say they need five more years to comply with the rules, or would face being crippled by the cost of replacing or upgrading their equipment. They also predict that many small contractors would be forced out of business and tens of thousands of jobs would be eliminated if stricter diesel emissions standards were applied, the paper reported.

San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, a member of the air board, said the industry's testimony yesterday was “less than convincing,” according to the paper. At the end of the hearing, he held up his asthma inhaler and told the crowd that new regulations were inevitable, the Union-Tribune reported.

“Get realistic,” the paper reported Roberts as saying. “We are going to start cleaning up diesel exhaust from construction equipment just like we have from every other thing in the state.”

Swift action is needed to reduce diesel pollution, which is linked to about 1,100 premature deaths annually in California from cancer and other illnesses, plus about 32,000 cases of asthma and other respiratory problems, according to environmentalists, community activists and medical experts at the meeting. They emphasized that money saved by reducing sick days and hospital bills would outweigh the cost of upgrading off-road vehicles, the paper said.

“People can't choose not to breathe the air, so we have to rely on government agencies to protect us,” Dr. Michael Kelly, a family practitioner in San Diego, said at the meeting, according to the Union-Tribune.

The air board won't vote on the proposal before late July, according to the paper; before then, the agency's staff will try to determine the cause of the disparity between the board's cost estimate and the industry's projections.

Board members also want to determine and clarify whether the equipment necessary to improve and replace older off-road vehicles would be available by the deadlines in their plan, the Union-Tribune reported.

In addition to the financial setbacks, industry officials said they can't buy or install so much equipment so quickly, the paper reported. But clean-air advocates responded by saying there are many modernization devices already available and that more may be developed in response to the new regulations, according to the paper.

The air board has already issued standards that further limit pollutants in exhaust from new diesel engines and slashed emission levels allowed for garbage trucks, the paper reported.

In California, diesel particles are classified as toxic air contaminants. By 2020, the air board aims to cut diesel particle emissions and associated cancer risks by 85% compared with 2000 levels, according to the paper.

The board’s latest diesel proposal outlines a tiered schedule for replacing or retrofitting older engines, beginning with the largest fleets, the paper reported, but the proposed rules won't apply to off-road recreational vehicles or engines with less than 25 hp.

“Doing less or waiting longer will mean more people will breathe unhealthy air,” said Catherine Witherspoon, executive officer for the air board, the paper reported.

A report from the board estimates that construction companies would carry about half the cost of the tougher rules, while equipment-rental and mining companies would cover about 25% between them, according to the Union-Tribune.

While the report states that “most affected businesses will be able to absorb or pass on the costs of the proposed regulation with no significant adverse impacts on their profitability,” construction experts in the San Diego area disagree, according to the paper.

“In reality, what [construction companies] will probably end up doing is going out of business, leaving the state or just shedding the equipment and not replacing it,” said Scott Molloy, a lobbyist for the Building Industry Association of San Diego County.

The result, he said, would be decreased construction capacity for the types of roads and other projects that Californians want. “It will translate into driving up the . . . costs dramatically,” Molloy added, according to the paper.

Several building industry officials held a news conference on a partly built interchange for I-15 on May 24 to make their case, the paper reported. Such projects would be jeopardized, they said, unless companies had more time to modernize their equipment.

According to Mike Shaw, who represents the Engineering and General Contractors Association, “The construction industry and its workers are not trying to stop these regulations. No one wants to clean up construction equipment more than the crews that do the work,” the paper reported.

Mike Carcioppolo, a manager for Hawthorne Machinery Co., San Diego, said heavy equipment makers are introducing machines that meet state and federal pollution standards, according to the Union-Tribune. However, he said, upgrading old equipment isn't as simple as dropping in a new engine.

“The regulations are not viable because the technology is not available yet,” Carcioppolo said.

But industry groups commonly use the tactics of asking for more time and pleading poverty, environmentalists claim.

“This is all part of the drama that goes on every time a rule is passed,” said Kathryn Phillips, manager of the California Clean Air for Life Campaign for the group Environmental Defense in Sacramento, Calif., the paper reported.

Bonnie Holmes Gen, a top official with the American Lung Association of California, said the construction industry has known for several years about the proposed regulations, according to the paper.

“Do not delay,” she urged the air board. “And do not be intimidated by the construction industry.”

Some form of regulation seems certain, the paper reported, although it is unclear whether the proposal will survive in its present form. One wild card in the mix is that industry leaders have the ear of top officials at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

“When industry says to us that this will have even a moderate effect on costs, . . . we listen very carefully,” said Gregg Albright, a deputy director at the transportation agency, the paper reported.

Phillips, who sees an interagency battle brewing over the diesel initiative, is concerned about such statements, the paper said.

“There is a huge possibility that there will be an effort [by Caltrans] to weaken the rules,” Phillips said.

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