Asthma: Has State Stalled in Regulating Breath-Robbing Big Rigs? – Part 2

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Austin Carter, 13, learns how to properly use an inhaler during his visit at the Breathmobile clinic in Oakland in May. Photo by Heidi de Marco/California Healthline.

By Ngoc Nguyen, Kaiser Health News,

California has cleaned up its diesel fleet significantly in recent years by phasing out older trucks and requiring operators to install the latest pollution-control equipment.

But local air district officials and environmental advocates say more needs to be done and that the emissions goal should be close to zero.

Efforts to get there are stalled, they say, in part because of a provision in the $52 billion road improvement law signed in April by Gov. Jerry Brown. That provision exempts most diesel trucks on the road from future emissions reduction requirements for many years.

Critics say the governor agreed to the last-minute exemption to gain the trucking industry’s support for higher diesel and gas taxes that, along with vehicle fees, are expected to raise $5.2 billion annually over 10 years to repair roads and bridges and to expand public transit.

Bill Magavern, policy director for the Sacramento-based Coalition for Clean Air, said improving infrastructure is laudable but should not come at the cost of clean air.

“There’s a lot to like in that bill, and we hated to oppose it,” but there was a “dirty deal” thrown in at the last minute, Magavern said.

Gov. Brown’s office referred questions on the truckers’ amendment to the ARB, the state’s clean-air agency.

The ARB said it can provide incentives to further reduce emissions without imposing additional requirements. And the new law, it said, will strengthen enforcement of existing rules.

Under the law, “truck operators can be denied [Department of Motor Vehicles] registration if they’re not meeting the current rules,” board spokesman David Clegern said. “Diesel pollution will be reduced by bringing 300,000 more trucks into compliance.”

Local air managers in Southern California say greater enforcement of current rules is important, but it won’t sufficiently accelerate turnover of the truck fleet. And that’s crucial to helping Southern California meet federal clean-air standards, said Philip Fine, deputy executive officer of planning and rule development at the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The problem for local air districts and ports is that when it comes to directly regulating mobile sources of pollution like diesel trucks, the state is the boss. It approves local district plans, and the local districts more or less oversee the ports. So the most effective way to reduce trucker emissions is to set stringent policy at the state level, as California has aggressively done in the

But truckers say the state has imposed enough requirements. Chris Shimoda, vice president of government affairs for the California Trucking Association, said diesel emissions from trucks in California ports have fallen dramatically in recent years.

“This is attributable to the current $1 billion annually being invested by truckers in the cleanest available technology throughout the state,” Shimoda said.

People living near ports like the one in Oakland have benefited from the state’s efforts to clean up the truck fleet — by phasing out older models and requiring operators to install the latest pollution-control equipment. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

He also said that being exempted from any future state emissions-reduction requirements reassures the trucking industry that it will recoup the investment it is making in new engines to meet current state standards.

Under existing state rules, owners of heavy-duty trucks must have 2010 or newer-model engines by 2023.

Those rules have dramatically improved air quality. A study by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, among others, found that from 2009 to 2013 emissions of black carbon from trucks at the Port of Oakland dropped by 76 percent and nitrogen oxides by 53 percent.

Still, ports throughout the state rely mostly on diesel to power vessels, yard equipment, trains and trucks. Ports in Southern California remain the single-largest fixed source of smog-forming pollution in the region. And the Port of Oakland is the largest fixed emitter of diesel pollution in the Bay Area, local air managers say.

That’s why local districts were alarmed by the governor’s concession to the trucking industry, said Tom Addison, legislative and policy adviser for the Bay Area air district.

It “gives the trucking industry a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It bars any kind of state regulations that might require truckers to move to a different kind of truck — natural gas-powered, electric or hydrogen fuels — when those become available in the market.”

Last month, the mayors of Los Angeles and Long Beach set ambitious goals for the ports to transition to zero-emission truck and yard equipment over the next 20 years.

But the new state law calls into question whether those plans — and others in coming years — will be enforceable.

If the ports in Southern California announced that in five years they’re going to have an all zero-emissions fleet, Pettit said, “they’d be sued [by the trucking association] in a heartbeat.”

Kaiser Health News, khn.org, is a nonprofit health newsroom.

 

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