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Spin war sets stage for landmark action on diesel regs, greenhouse gases

As the Air Resources Board prepares to decide back-to-back rules governing diesel soot and greenhouse gases, the air of the Capitol is filled with another kind of pollution – words and spin.

Looming in the background is the state’s deteriorating economy, which could play into the ARB’s votes. Despite that, the governor urged the ARB to proceed aggressively.

“I recommend very strongly that we move forward. It doesn’t make any sense that we‘re looking at our health and destroying our environment just because it’s not the right time. I think there are certain things we have to move forward with,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday.  “You will always have people,” he added, “saying this will lose jobs.

The trucking industry disagreed.

“We’ve already achieved significant emission reductions. We believe we’re way ahead of where CARB expected us to be,”  said Mike Lewis of the Construction Industry Air Quality Coalition. “Without some relief, this rule is going to drive even more companies out of business and more workers out of work.”

On the eve of the two closely watched decisions, the ARB – in advance of its own  vote — released the results of a study on the health-cost and health-care implications of the proposed diesel regulations, that targeted the impact on trucking industry workers. The statement’s timing appeared to be generating public and political support for its looming decision.

Meanwhile, industry opponents of the regulations issued their own statements attacking the rules, and there were demonstrations over the regulations at the headquarters of the state Environmental Protection Agency, where the ARB was holding its meetings this week.

The public’s attention has been focused more on the climate-changing greenhouse gas rules, which require California to cut its carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. But much of the greenhouse gas strategy and more than half of its pollution cutting are contained in other legislation – not in the bill, AB 32, that has drawn national and international attention. The most crucial piece of the greenhouse gas rules is the creation of a marketplace to buy, trade and sell emission credits – credits potentially worth billions of dollars. That piece, which will be crafted through regulation that will be drawn up next year, has yet to be determined.

On Thursday, the ARB, as expected, unanimously approved the greenhouse gas plan following a public hearing. Just how the new proposal will work is still unknown because the regulations that actually put the plan into effect won't be drawn up until next year. The most critical piece is the marketplace system. Also controversial is use of so-called "offsets." An offset is a sort of pollution permission slip that allows a company to pollute in one area by performing a "green" function somewhere else, such as planting trees or habitat rehabilitation.  

But, by far, the greatest immediate economic impact will stem from the new diesel regulations, which will be phased in beginning in 2010. The latest rules, which require vehicles to cut back on the soot they emit by being fitted with pollution traps or new engines, apply to on-road diesel vehicles; the off-road rules were adopted earlier. The construction industry, with its fleets of diesel vehicles, has asked for a delay in putting the new rules into practice. Others, such as the operators of fleets of school buses, generally dislike the proposed rule.

The workers “who have had regular exposure to diesel and other types of vehicle exhaust showed an elevated risk of lung cancer with increasing years of work,” the ARB statement said.

The research showed that trucking workers with an estimated 20 years on the job had an increased risk of lung cancer; long-haul workers, dockworkers, pickup and delivery drivers, and people who worked as both dockworkers and pickup and delivery drivers had an increased risk compared to workers in other job categories, such as clerks and mechanics, according to the ARB.

“We’ve known for more than a decade that exhaust from diesel trucks is dangerous,” said ARB Chairman Mary Nichols. “The more we study these emissions the more dangerous it appears.” The study covered trucking and workers from 1985 through 2000.
Just how much money is involved in the diesel regulations is a matter of fierce dispute.

The ARB estimated the economic at roughly $4.4 billion to $5.4 billion, due mostly to the cost of upgrading vehicles with soot-capturing traps, which can cost $20,000 or more for older trucks, and the purchase over time of new engines and vehicles.
Truckers and their allies believe their out-of-pocket costs could be far higher, perhaps $8 billion to $10 billion, and that the ARB has little concept of the rules’ fiscal impact in harsh economic times.

“My concern is my ability to upgrade my fleet. I have 5 years to replace all 30 trucks at a price tag of $3 million. It is incomprehensible to me how I’d be able to do that,” said Ralph Ramorino, owner of a Hayward trucking company. He noted that the weakening economy is “dramatically different than it was even a few months ago,” and that his company had the first layoffs in its 49-year history.

The ARB believes the savings in health-care costs could be in the “tens of billions of dollars” and far-outweigh the economic impact on the industry.

Diesel soot results in perhaps 1,000 premature deaths annually in California, 320,000 cases of asthma-related illnesses, boosts lung-cancer cases, results in nearly 2 million lost workdays, requires some 2,400 hospital admissions, reduces atmospheric visibility by 10 percent to 75 percent and, second only to carbon dioxide, contributes to global warming. Cleansing the air of diesel soot saves lives and protecting the public’s health comes first, notes the ARB, which estimates that the savings in health care could be “tens of billions of dollars.” Last year, amid similar arguments, the ARB wrote rules governing off-road diesel vehicles.

In the ARB-cited study, researchers limited their investigation to men older than 39 years with at least one year on the job, and examined men working as clerks, mechanics, long-haul drivers, dockworkers, combination workers, and in pickup and delivery. Within the study period there were 4,306 deaths seen in the study group with 779 cases of lung cancer. In addition, it implies that a reduction of diesel particulate matter will have health benefits for the trucking industry and the general public who live, commute, or work near diesel vehicles, according to the ARB.

*Editor's Note: Updates with ARB approval of scoping plan.


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