Diesel Clean Up Opportunities for Congress

Guest Blog | April 8, 2011 | Clean Transportation, Climate Change

“Diesel exhaust is among the substances that may pose the greatest risk to the U.S. population.” That’s the latest statement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who recently released their updated National Toxics Assessment (NATA). The quote also encompasses the message that we and other members of the Diesel Clean-Up Campaign from around the country shared with legislators in Washington last week.

Jennifer Rennicks and Anne Blair
Jennifer Rennicks and Anne Blair

Although there are clean diesel regulations for new engines, there are 11 million old, dirty diesel engines in the U.S. that may be in use for decades to come. Retrofits are available today that can nearly eliminate diesel particulate matter and black carbon emissions from these engines.

Fine particle pollution produced by diesel engines causes 21,000 deaths a year, according to a 2005 report by the Clean Air Task Force entitled, Diesel and Health in America: The Lingering Threat. Diesel engines emit a toxic mixture of particles, metals, and gases, including over 40 classified as “hazardous air pollutants” by the EPA. The cancer risk posed by diesel exhaust in the U.S. is three times higher than that from all other air toxics tracked by EPA combined. Premature death, lung cancer, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, respiratory distress and lost days from school and work have all been tied to diesel pollution. Reducing this risk is a win for everyone.

The Diesel Clean-Up Campaign is working across the country on local, state and federal initiatives to reduce this significant health burden. Deaths from diesel exhaust exceed other high-profile causes of death in the U.S. including firearm homicides, HIV/AIDS, and drunk driving.

Image Courtesy of Clean Air Task Force
Image Courtesy of Clean Air Task Force

One of EPA’s most important and cost-effective programs for reducing this significant health threat--the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA)–which was signed into law and reauthorized in January for another five years, is on the chopping block. It is anyone’s guess as to why public health is being treated by our leaders as a political issue; but OUR health should NOT be further jeopardized. First and foremost, Congress needs to get their act together and prevent a shutdown TODAY so we can address these vital issues.  See more about attacks to the Clean Air Act here.

During our trip to Washington, we, along with our partners Mothers & Other for Clean Air and local pediatrician Dr. Yolanda Whyte, met with more than nine members of the Southeast congressional delegation in order to share stories of DERA’s success and value to our region. You see, demand and need for diesel emissions reduction is high. EPA receives $5 in applications for every $1 appropriated for DERA awards. In a FY 2008 Report to Congress, EPA estimated that every dollar spent on the DERA program results in an average of more than $20 in health benefits. Not only that, but the Southeast has received more than $20 million from the program, which has helped us reduce our particulate matter emissions in some of the dirtiest cities in our region.

In Georgia, DERA funds support the University of Georgia and Washington County’s project to install retrofits on transit buses, garbage trucks, and other vehicles. This project will retrofit 239 on-highway diesel vehicles and reduce particulate matter by 6.4 tons. DERA has also funded retrofits for school buses, municipal equipment and cranes at the Port of Savannah. In Tennessee, DERA has supported the cleanup of school buses, and is helping fund truckstop electrification throughout the state to reduce emissions from idling big rigs. In North Carolina, more than $3 million in DERA funding has been used to support school bus retrofits, repowering of construction equipment, and rail cleanup. Florida has received the largest amount of DERA funding in our region – approximately $10 million. This money has supported retrofitting agriculture irrigation pumps, repowering and retrofitting construction equipment and school buses, and replacing school and transit buses with natural gas and electric buses.

DERA is also responsible for the creation and retention of local US jobs that involve manufacturing, installation and servicing emissions-related technologies. Unfortunately, many of our leaders weren’t aware of the benefits of the program during our discussions last week. We hope that the information we provided has better informed them and will help them take action in support of the program. Congress should fight to keep effective programs like this one, with strong public benefits for every one of us, going strong.

We call on Congress to support funding for the DERA in the FY12 budget at the $50M level. This is equivalent to the 2008 funded level for this cost-effective, bipartisan program.

In addition, there’s another great opportunity in Congress right now for diesel cleanup – the Surface Transportation Bill.

We all know that diesel engines are considered the “workhorses of our economy,” but while they are building our roads, bike lanes, or helping to build new rail lines, they are also emitting toxic air pollutants that damage our lungs and hearts and contribute to asthma, diabetes, cancer and premature death. Of all diesel emitters, construction equipment contributes the most pollution.

Last year, the Diesel Clean Up Campaign led by the Clean Air Task Force and the Associated General Contractors Association (AGC) developed and agreed on the “Clean Construction Principles,” which they are encouraging Congress to include in the next federal Surface Transportation bill.

Chairman of the U.S. House of Representative’s Transportation & Infrastructure Committee John Mica (R-Fla.) is currently hearing from members of Congress about their priorities for inclusion in the next transportation bill. The bill will dictate how our money is spent on transportation improvements. We believe that any new investment in our nation’s infrastructure through the Transportation Reauthorization bill should be a clean investment. To ensure that diesel emissions are reduced, clean construction equipment should be required and funded as part of the Transportation Reauthorization bill, especially in PM non-attainment and maintenance areas. Government-funded projects should not make people sick, and protections from harmful diesel pollution should be streamlined and integrated into project delivery. Key components that we recommend include a clean construction equipment provision that is:

  • Required and funded in PM2.5 non-attainment and maintenance areas;
  • Optional and funded in PM2.5 attainment areas;
  • Meets an 85 percent reduction in emissions, or, emission reduction options that “achieve the maximum reduction of PM2.5 emissions for the particular application”;
  • Administered by “change order”;
  • Ensured via “eligible project expenses”;
  • Capped at “1 percent” of total project cost; and
  • Funded through project funds.

Cost-effective technology is widely available and highly capable of achieving significant reductions in emissions from older diesel engines. Congress should act now by funding the renewed, bipartisan, highly-effective Diesel Emissions Reduction Act and supporting a Clean Construction Equipment provision in the upcoming Surface Transportation Bill. DERA and the Clean Construction Equipment provision will both result in significant reductions of these toxic emissions and protect our nation’s air quality and public health.

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