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Diesel = needless deaths

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - There was a time when Northwest Container Services reach stackers filled the air with black smoke from the exhaust. But the Portland-based company retrofitted its machines with diesel particulate filters, eliminating most of the pollution. Ever drive behind a diesel truck and notice the black smoke belching from the tailpipe?

“Stand next to a diesel engine that’s running, and the fumes will about knock you over,” says Ernie St. Julien, heavy equipment division manager for Portland-based Northwest Container Services. Those fumes, according to a growing body of scientific evidence, cause cancer, heart and lung disease and are a major contributor to global warming.

The good news, St. Julien and others say, is that newer diesel engines are vastly cleaner, and older models can be retrofitted with exhaust filters to remove most of the pollutants.

The bad news is that Oregon lags behind California and Washington in enacting stiff air-quality standards for diesel engines and investing money to solve the problem.

Oregon risks becoming a “dumping ground for the older diesel vehicles that are banned by neighboring states,” says Mary Peveto, a Portland activist trying to clean up our fouled air.

Companies barred from using older freight trucks for interstate commerce routinely sell them to smaller firms specializing in short-haul trips in urban areas such as Portland — a nexus for local rail, trucking routes and ports.

Peveto co-founded Neighbors for Clean Air in 2009, when she learned the air near her Northwest Portland home was a toxic hot spot, much of it traced to emissions from an Esco Corp. metals plant. Despite the hazards of living near a major industrial air polluter, the more Peveto dug into the problem, the more she realized that diesel emissions pose a greater danger. Far more people live near freight corridors or are exposed to diesel fumes from construction equipment.

“It’s clear and away the most significant problem in our region for human health risks from air toxics,” Peveto says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Kevin Downing from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality helps companies and agencies secure funds to retrofit or replace  heavy trucks and off-road diesel equipment. Kevin Downing has done more than anyone to get dirty diesel trucks off Oregon roads. He runs the Clean Diesel Initiative for Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, which pays for truckers and other diesel owners to retrofit their rigs or buy new ones.

Diesel exhaust causes some 250 premature deaths a year in Oregon, Downing calculates, based on Environmental Protection Agency data. That’s more Oregonians than those who die from murder and drunken driving, combined.

Diesel pollution costs about $2 billion a year in the state, Downing says, based on economists’ formulas that translate the dollar value of premature death, disease and lost work days.

Diesel fumes contain up to 40 toxic chemicals, including benzene and dioxins. The Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based group active on the diesel pollution issue, calculates that Oregonians have the sixth-highest health risk from diesel soot among the states.

The environmental cost also is huge.

Black carbon, a component of diesel exhaust, is now the second-leading cause of climate change attributable to human activity, after carbon dioxide emissions, Downing says. Diesel is the leading component of black carbon here, which also includes emissions from burning wood and coal.

Oregon environmental regulators have long focused on ridding the skies of pollution from auto emissions. But over the past 10 to 15 years, scientists have concluded that diesel fumes pose an underrated health and environmental threat.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - These diesel particulate filters eliminated more than 90 percent of the toxic emissions from Northwest Container Services reach stackers. Older diesel engines and off-road equipment emit particulate matter, including tiny particles smaller than 2.5 microns — about 1/25th the size of a human hair. Those soot particles are so small we can’t see them, and our nasal passages can’t filter them out. They lodge in the deep regions of our lungs and get into our bloodstream. That causes heart disease, lung and bladder cancer, asthma, bronchitis and allergic reactions. It may even cause brain tumors in newborns due to a father’s occupational exposure to diesel fumes.

Clean vehicles hit the road

Thankfully, the EPA has required new heavy trucks and buses sold in the United States since 2007 to burn ultra-low-sulphur diesel fuel and meet strict air emissions standards. The same goes for new diesel passenger cars and trucks sold since 2010, with other deadlines for off-road equipment.

“It’s possible with a straight face to call these ‘clean diesel’ engines,” Downing says. In Los Angeles, the air coming into the engine is dirtier than the filtered emissions coming out the tailpipe, he says.

In addition, older trucks and off-road equipment can be retrofitted with modern exhaust filters to meet strict clean-air standards.

That’s what St. Julien did, using government grants. He retrofitted most of Northwest Container Services’ Oregon and Washington reach stackers, giant machines that can lift 100,000-pound shipping containers on and off trucks and trains. The filters slash diesel pollution by 93 percent or more, St. Julien says.

“I’d like to be part of the solution,” he says, “not part of the problem.”

But here’s the rub: the EPA never mandated that older diesel trucks and heavy equipment be retrofitted or taken out of service. As a result, those might be in use another 30 to 50 years polluting the air.

California steps up

California led the nation by branding diesel a carcinogen back in 1998, and set a strict health standard for human exposure. California also adopted an aggressive mandate to phase out dirty diesel vehicles and other equipment operating in the state.

Washington adopted California’s diesel standard, though it didn’t require the phaseout of older vehicles. Instead, Washington has approved at least $5 million in the past few years to help truckers and other diesel owners retrofit their rigs or buy new ones, Downing says. Retrofits can cost up to $16,000 or more.

Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission, the volunteer board that guides the DEQ and sets state policies, declared diesel emissions a carcinogen in 2006. But the board adopted a more lenient state standard for diesel pollution — allowing concentrations 33 times higher than California or Washington before it’s deemed a health concern.

After DEQ’s multiyear effort to identify the threat from diesel fumes and other hazardous emissions — the Portland Air Toxics Solutions project —

Oregon didn’t follow up with new regulations, Peveto says.

She blames business and industry lobbyists for thwarting state regulations and “politicizing” the diesel pollution problem.

“Air emissions has been that thing that’s really been thrown under the bus,” Peveto says.

The Oregon Legislature provided an initial $1 million in 2007 for diesel truck retrofits and incentives, though it retracted $200,000 of that when the Great Recession slammed state revenues. The state has provided no money since then.

Downing’s DEQ program is forced to rely mostly on federal grants. In the past four years, he has doled out $3 million for retrofits or replacements of 400 vehicles.

Downing recently helped the Columbia Corridor Association win a $345,000 grant to help short-haul truckers replace up to six old trucks. Corky Collier, the association’s executive director, hopes to demonstrate the virtues of shifting to clean diesel.

But there are roughly 80,000 heavy trucks based in Oregon, Downing says, and it would cost $700 million to retrofit them all. Still, he figures that would erase $2 billion in annual social costs from diesel pollution.

Mandates needed?

Some say cleaning up diesel pollution will require California-style mandates. Oregon piggybacked on California’s stricter automobile mileage standards, and could do the same with diesel regulations.

“You’ve got to do it large-scale,” Collier says. “If everybody’s doing it, then we’re all in the same boat,” he says, and there’s no competitive disadvantage for companies that want to do the right thing. A mandate should come with financial incentives for truckers and other diesel owners, he says.

The Portland City Club issued an air toxins report last year, urging the Environmental Quality Commission to adopt the California emissions standard for heavy diesel vehicles. It also urged the Legislature to let DEQ regulate off-road diesel equipment, which spews more particulate matter into Portland’s air than freight trucks.

Despite Oregon’s green reputation, environmentalists point to a long history of business-friendly lawmakers threatening DEQ’s budget unless it treads lightly on business regulations.

Oregon lags California and Washington on clean diesel “because of the successful lobbying of the industrial community,” says Spencer Erhman, leader of the City Club advocacy committee on air toxics.

“From what I’ve seen,” St. Julien says, “California is on top of it and Washington’s doing its best to get there, and Oregon’s been fighting it.”

People in the Portland area may be complacent, Erhman says, because they look out toward Mount Hood and see that we’ve made great strides in cleaning up smog and air visibility.

“They have no idea that the air we breathe is toxic.”