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Firms balk at cost, time needed to retrofit dirty-diesel vehicles

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Kevin Downing, who runs DEQ's Clean Diesel Initiative, says some TriMet buses, like this one, filter most diesel pollution.  We hear lots of sordid tales about murders in Portland, but there’s a silent killer lurking in our air that costs far more lives.

It’s diesel fumes.

Older-model freight trucks and off-road construction equipment emit tiny particles that lodge in our lungs and get into our bloodstream, causing heart attacks, strokes, cancer, asthma and bronchitis.

Diesel soot kills about 91 people a year in Multnomah County, according to the Clean Air Task Force in Boston. That’s more than the number of homicides in Portland over the past four years.

“Diesel is one of the most significant human health risks,” says Mary Peveto, a Northwest Portland resident who co-founded Neighbors for Clean Air.

With state lawmakers and environmental regulators hesitant to follow California’s lead and bar the use of dirty-diesel engines here, her group and others are taking matters into their own hands.

The Northwest District Association recently secured a commitment by developer C.E. John Co. to require exhaust filters on diesel-powered cranes, trucks and earth movers that will redevelop the Conway site in Northwest Portland during the next decade.

Soon after that deal was announced, the Arlington Heights Neighborhood Association asked for similar clean-diesel guarantees when the Portland Water Bureau caps the Washington Park reservoirs. And Brooklyn residents have raised a stink about diesel pollution from locomotives at rail yards in their inner Southeast Portland neighborhood.

Oregon lags behind California and Washington in pushing for the use of clean-diesel vehicles and off-road equipment “because of the successful lobbying of the industrial community,” says Spencer Erhman, leader of a Portland City Club advocacy committee on toxic air emissions.

Though the city has no legal authority over heavy trucks or air emissions, off-road construction equipment pumps more hazardous particulate matter into the air here than freight trucks, according to the Clean Air Task Force. Local activists say it’s time for the city of Portland to step up and not wait for the Legislature and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to solve the problem.

Chicago, New York City and Pittsburgh “are way ahead of us,” requiring clean-diesel equipment for all public works construction, says Eric Nagle, an Arlington Heights activist and environmental lawyer.

“It doesn’t really seem consistent with the city’s reputation for sustainable thinking,” Nagle says. “If a neighborhood association can do it, then the city of Portland ought to be able to do it.”

Tom Dichiara, C.E. John’s senior vice president for development, says he hopes construction firms will see the handwriting on the wall and voluntarily retrofit their trucks and equipment or replace them with new clean-diesel models. He likens it to the LEED green building standard, which prodded businesses to voluntarily pursue higher environmental standards.

“We’re going to be pushing the market to see what’s possible,” Dichiara says.

But some say the city needs to assure all neighborhoods are protected from toxic fumes at major construction sites.

“It’s life and death, and so we need to make it a priority,” city Commissioner Amanda Fritz said at a recent City Council briefing about the Conway deal. “I am very interested in looking at this issue at the local level.”


Under Portland’s commissioner form of government, each city bureau or agency with construction projects — transportation, parks, sewer, water, the Portland Development Commission — may have a different political overseer, and thus different priorities.

A case in point: Josh Alpert, Mayor Charlie Hales’ environmental policy director, suggests Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Water Bureau, think about a clean diesel commitment for the reservoir-capping project at Washington Park.

Fish, enmeshed in fending off a likely May ballot measure to turn the water and sewer bureaus over to an independently elected board, declined to comment for this story.

“There’s a lot of good intent, but no one’s picked this up and run with it,” Alpert says of the City Council’s approach to the clean-diesel issue.

But Alpert says he’s now starting to investigate city policies that the mayor might propose.

There’s no lack of smaller-scale efforts by Portland and other local entities to reduce the number of dirty-diesel vehicles spewing toxic air.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Catlin Gabel school students board the clean diesel buses in the afternoon.Catlin Gabel, a westside private school in the unincorporated West Sylvan area, was a local pioneer at retrofitting its fleet of 13 school buses with diesel exhaust filters, starting in 2006.

“The studies show that diesel particulates are small enough that they’re among the most hazardous for people,” says facilities director Eric Shawn, “especially for young children.”

Kevin Downing, who runs the Clean Diesel Initiative for the state Department of Environmental Quality, has shelled out $3 million in the past four years, mostly from federal grants, to help other entities retrofit or replace 400 diesel trucks and other equipment.

The city of Portland, using a $1.6 million federal stimulus grant, retrofitted 91 of its own diesel trucks and other equipment, basically upgrading its entire fleet from 2009 to 2011, says Michele Crim, sustainability manager for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. The grant also enabled Multnomah County to retrofit its smaller fleet of diesel vehicles and equipment, and mount a demonstration project that subsidized diesel retrofits during construction of the East County Courthouse.

As part of the federal grant, local officials also wrote a draft city-county policy that would require clean-diesel equipment on all public works projects costing more than $2 million.

But that idea was dropped.

Clash of values

The city was unable to find construction companies willing to retrofit their diesel equipment — even when the grant would cover the costs — Crim says. Some companies balked because retrofits would require “down time” during the conversion, taking their equipment out of commission, she says.

More significantly, Crim and other officials concluded that requiring clean-diesel equipment for all contractors would hamper the ability of women- and minority-owned firms to win bids.

It can cost $20,000 to $50,000 to retrofit diesel construction equipment, Crim says, and smaller companies tend to have less access to capital.

“The big construction companies can afford to buy the new equipment,” she says, while the smaller contractors often wind up buying the older equipment.

That older equipment can remain in use for decades spewing diesel fumes, while the new equipment produces 90 percent or more fewer emissions.

Nagle doesn’t buy the argument that a clean-diesel requirement for public works should be avoided because it will hurt minority businesses.

“It’s the members of the minority community who suffer the most from poor air quality,” Nagel says. And nobody is more at risk, he adds, than construction crews using the equipment.

Crim, who administered the federal stimulus grant, concluded that a clean-diesel mandate in Portland would be “really challenging,” and that public remedies are best done statewide. For one, the city doesn’t have the means to know whether contractors’ equipment meets clean-diesel specifications. That probably would require a state registry and inspection system, she says.

But Crim, and Alpert, are intrigued by an idea proposed by Downing of DEQ: tacking on a 1 or 2 percent addition to winning construction bids, with the money used to subsidize retrofits for construction equipment. That would avoid penalizing women- and minority-owned contractors, Crim says.

Alpert says any local clean-diesel policies need to be “fleshed out more,” but he’s starting to study them, with Hales’ blessing.

“I think the mayor is interested in picking it up,” he says.

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