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Public health advocates seek stricter rules on air quality



Photo Credit: DREAMSTIME PHOTO - Most Oregon-based trucks are older models that emit diesel soot, a known carcinogen. Mary Peveto made her name as an activist prodding Esco Corp. to reduce toxic air emissions near her children’s school in Northwest Portland.

Now Peveto and the grassroots group she co-founded, Neighbors for Clean Air, are tackling a bigger goal: ridding Oregon of dirty diesel engines.

Ever since California moved to phase out the use of older diesel vehicles and off-road commercial rigs there, many have found their way into Oregon — freight trucks, school buses and bulldozers — and some fear those will grow more numerous as more of California’s rolling deadlines take effect.

“We can’t let Oregon be the leading market for dirty diesel engines, and that’s going to happen,” Peveto says.

Older diesel trucks and off-road construction and other commercial rigs spew microscopic particles that lodge in peoples’ lungs, causing cancer, heart attacks and other health maladies. Federal data crunched by the Clean Air Task Force in Boston shows that Multnomah County has the fourth-highest level of diesel soot of all U.S. counties — more than in Los Angeles County, Peveto notes. Oregon has the sixth-highest level among the states, leading to hundreds of premature deaths here every year because of diesel.

Congress long ago required newly manufactured trucks and rigs to be “clean diesel” starting in 2007-08, which reduced emissions by more than 90 percent. But older rigs can legally remain on the road or construction sites for decades, except in California, which went beyond Congress to phase out their use in that state.

Under the Clean Air Act, other states can adopt stricter air quality regulations enacted by California. That’s what Peveto wants the Oregon Legislature to do this session.

The clean-diesel crusade hasn’t emerged as a top priority for most environmental groups this session, or for Gov. John Kitzhaber, but public health advocates are picking up the cause, including leaders of Multnomah County, which bears a disproportionate burden from diesel pollution.

Portland bearing brunt

Most trucks, buses, trains, barges, and planes pass through Portland, so the city gets more than its share of toxic air emissions.

“It’s pretty alarming,” says Matthew Davis, policy analyst for the Multnomah County Health Department. “We’re talking about over 450 deaths a year statewide.”

The impact is more acute among residents near industrial areas and freeways, so diesel takes a bigger toll on low-income residents and people of color, according to the 2014 Report Card on Racial and Ethnic Disparities issued last month by Multnomah County.

“Communities of color are exposed to levels of diesel that are two to three times higher than communities around the county that are predominantly white,” Davis says.

Some of the hardest-hit areas are the Kenton, Piedmont and Cully neighborhoods of North and Northeast Portland, residents near Portland International Airport, and parts of Gresham, Wood Village and Fairview.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, are collaborating on a clean diesel bill to be introduced this session.

“We’re working on legislation that would move us to the California standards over a period of time,” Dembrow says.

Phasing in the standards, essentially doing as California has done but on a later time frame, could give fleet owners time to buy new clean-diesel vehicles or retrofit their fleets with filters that screen out most of the harmful particulates.

One of the thornier problems is providing the same kind of assistance California does to help fleet owners make the transition to clean vehicles. Oregon has a constitutional provision requiring the use of gas taxes for roads, so the state’s major source of transportation funding is off-limits.

“So we have more challenges as far as the incentive side,” says Dembrow, who is trying to come up with other funding sources.

Oregon’s trucking industry would prefer that diesel regulations be done on a national basis, not state by state, says Bob Russell, vice president for government affairs at the Oregon Trucking Associations. “It puts the industry in this state at a competitive disadvantage,” Russell says. “We don’t think that’s good for the Oregon economy.”

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF OREGON ENVIRONMENTAL COUNCIL - Oregon Environmental Council produced this graphic to illustrate the various health impacts diesel soot has on the human body.

Local trucks older

Big interstate freight companies tend to have the most modern trucks, as they replace them more regularly. Of 357,464 large interstate trucks registered to do business partly in Oregon, 242,227, or 67.8 percent, were built since 2008, and are thus clean-diesel trucks, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Motor Carrier division.

The trucks that log most or all of their miles in Oregon and are based here must get Oregon license plates. Of those 54,731 Oregon-based trucks, 19,402 were built in 2008 or later, or 35.4 percent.

“It tells me that the trucks that are based here in Oregon are older and possibly higher emitting than the trucks licensed to operate in multiple states,” says Kevin Downing, who runs the clean diesel program for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Those Oregon-based trucks, along with off-road commercial rigs, are more likely to be owned by smaller businesses with less wherewithal to modernize their fleets, Dembrow says. They’re the ones most likely to have dirty-diesel engines, and most likely to need financial incentives to make the switch to clean engines, he says.

Dumping issue

A key talking point in arguing for California’s diesel standards is the fear that Oregon is becoming a “dumping ground” for vehicles no longer legal to operate in California.

“California has been literally cleaning up their act, and we’re starting to see equipment dumped here as a result of that,” Dembrow says.

Downing, who helps diesel owners move to clean diesel with funds procured by DEQ, has been hearing anecdotal stories for years about vehicle owners who say they bought used trucks from California that are no longer legal there. Downing spotted school buses carrying a West Linn-Wilsonville girls basketball team that still had California plates. And he’s heard about trucks here fitted with diesel filters whose owners stripped the clean-diesel equipment to send it to California.

Russell says used trucks are like commodities, and will sell wherever there’s a market. Before many were going to Russia, and now many are going to Mexico, he says. “I haven’t seen any evidence of any significant number of used trucks from California coming into Oregon.”

Data from ODOT’s Motor Carrier division shows hundreds of older California trucks have been moved into service here, but fears of widespread dumping may be overblown. Of the 54,731 big trucks licensed in Oregon in 2014, 504 were built before 2007 and previously licensed by California.

Some of those 504 trucks were transferred from a company’s California operations to its Oregon operations. However, the majority appear to have been sold, and list a different owner now.

“Most of them now are putting their newest trucks in California for obvious reasons,” says ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton. “They will direct other trucks to Oregon and other states at the same time.”

But it appears that older California trucks only represent about 1 percent of the Oregon-based fleet. A far-bigger problem is that two-thirds of the entire Oregon-based fleet remain older, dirty diesel vehicles.

Still, 504 trucks emitting carcinogens is no trivial matter, and California’s law doesn’t fully phase in until 2023, so more dirty diesel vehicles could wind up here.

Supporters of adopting a California standard note that DEQ’s efforts to clean up rigs are being outweighed by an influx of dirty rigs from down south. Over several years, Downing has deployed some $7 million, mostly from federal grants, to help retrofit school buses, garbage trucks and other dirty-diesel vehicles in Oregon. Combined, the DEQ has helped replace or clean up 728 diesel vehicles or equipment over the years, Downing says. Most of those were retrofits, not outright replacements to new vehicles. The vast majority were school buses or municipal vehicles, not commercial trucks.

While Downing and the DEQ work to clean up dirty vehicles, more are coming across the border from California.

“We are not reducing our diesel exposure, despite our effort,” Peveto says.

That’s why Oregon must adopt California’s rules, Peveto says, and not keep focusing on cleaning up dirty vehicles one grant at a time. “Right now, anything else is a Band-Aid.”

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