Key anti-pollution law is weakened in latest budget draft

California's law that cuts pollution from off-road diesel equipment — including the tractors and cranes used in heavy construction — would be weakened sharply under a new state budget proposal that seeks to cover an unprecedented $42 billion shortage.

Under the 2007 rule, off-road diesel engines must be retrofitted or replaced to meet anti-pollution rules beginning in 2010 and phased in over time. The new budget language keeps that overall time frame, but changes the phase-in sequence to ease the limits during the first years of the program. The change means that less diesel-spawned pollution will be blocked – about 17 percent less, according to budget experts and environmentalists.

The change in diesel regulations is one of several environment-related regulations that would be affected if the budget ultimately is approved. Others include waivers from the California Environmental Quality Act for eight transportation construction projects scheduled by Caltrans and financed with voter-approved bonds.

Several proposals offered by Republicans were rejected by budget negotiators. One would have given the Schwarzenegger administration review authority over some decisions of the Air Resources Board. Another was dubbed "the Jerry Brown" exemption, which would have blocked greenhouse gas-linked lawsuits such as the one Brown filed earlier against San Bernardino County.

"By far the worst provision is the delayed implementation of the limitations in diesel emissions for off-road engines," said Bill Magavern of the Sierra Club, who had been briefed in the Capitol on the proposals. "There would be the 17 percent loss in emission reductions, and they are giving exemptions for engines that have been idled as far back as 2006."

"This is a great hoax,:" he added. "It has nothing to do with the budget. I haven't seen figures on how much this costs industry, but the state will save no money at all because this is unrelated to the budget."

The current off-road diesel rule, a landmark regulation written by the Air Resources Board in 2007, affect an estimated 180,000 off-road, unregistered diesel machines–including the loaders, graders, tractors, backhoes and scrapers. Experts involved in the issue have described the diesel rules as the most important issue before the ARB after AB 32, the state's new greenhouse-gas-emissions law, which has received international attention.

The regulations target soot from diesel engines–called particulate matter, or PM–as well as oxides of nitrogen or NOx, a trigger ingredient of smog.

Estimates of financial impacts range from $3 billion, a number generated by the ARB staff, to $9 billion, a figure computed by the industry–and some estimates push the figure to $14 billion to $16 billion.

Environmentalists say the rule, aggressively enforced, would help clean the air and save $9 billion in health-care costs. A coalition of environmentalists, scientists and health-care groups, in an earlier letter to the ARB, said dirty emissions from construction equipment are estimated to cause 1,100 premature deaths per year, 30,000 asthma attacks and 180,000 lost work days.

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