The recently published findings of a study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, which links heavy diesel pollution to an increased risk of autism, lends greater weight to concerns expressed in a just-adopted Portland City Club committee report on air toxics in the Metro region. Diesel pollution also increases the risk of lung cancer and causes breathing and heart problems.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality found in 2012 that Portland’s level of diesel particulate matter is more than 10 times the air quality health benchmark set by the state. The City Club committee, which I chaired, found that DEQ has been hampered by budget concerns and political hesitancy in developing and implementing solutions. Businesses typically bear the cost of reducing pollution, including diesel pollution. They have a financial incentive to resist regulations that reduce diesel pollution but may carry a substantial price tag. Larger organizations employ lobbyists to carry the anti-regulation message to the Legislature, while most members of the general public are too busy with their own day-to-day concerns to speak up.

In 2011, DEQ recommended statutory amendments to address aerodynamic inefficiencies on trucks and restrict overnight idling. Unfortunately, lobbyists were successful in derailing these amendments, which were similar to restrictions already adopted by California. The result was legislation that actually precluded local governments from adopting regulations on idling more stringent than those in state law.

New diesel engines must meet stringent federal standards. Older engines have a long lifespan and continue to pollute.

While DEQ has an incentive program to retrofit old engines by adding filters, it is underfunded. Both California and Washington have adopted more stringent standards than Oregon with respect to diesel pollution. To a small degree, that has encouraged dumping older trucks in Oregon. More importantly, as diesel trucks grow older, they are used for shorter hauls, which concentrates them in urban areas. Trucks are only part of the problem. DEQ estimates that non-road diesel engines, like those used in mining, construction, marine, stationary power and railroad activities, contribute 41 percent of the total diesel pollution in the Metro region.

We on the City Club committee recommended: The Oregon Environmental Commission should adopt California’s emission standards for heavy-duty diesel on-road trucks and explore additional financing incentives to support diesel engine retrofits; The Legislature should authorize DEQ to regulate, through newly adopted rules, the operation of non-road diesel engines; and all government agencies in the Portland “airshed” should adopt California’s construction contract requirements for off-road diesel equipment.

Because diesel pollution has far greater impacts on areas near freeways and major thoroughfares, and since these areas are often where low-income people live, addressing diesel pollution is an urgent matter of social justice. It is also cost effective for everyone. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that for every dollar spent to tighten diesel emission standards for truck engines, $20 in health care and mortality costs are saved. It is time to act.

Peter Livingstone serves on the Portland City Club committee.

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