Air board may relax diesel rules

SACRAMENTO — State air pollution regulators said this week they will consider relaxing new rules for diesel trucks and construction equipment to account for the slumping economy and inaccurate emissions projections.

The recession has reduced the number of trucks on the road, resulting in less pollution, California Air Resources Board staff members said at a Thursday hearing. Officials acknowledged a flaw in their scientific modeling that inflated emission estimates for off-road construction equipment.

"It's clear that there's a need for a new look at these two rules," said air board chairwoman Mary Nichols.

Staff members made several proposals that the board could vote on as soon as September, after reviews and public workshops this summer.

The proceedings are being watched closely in the San Joaquin Valley, where local air district officials are counting on the rules to help meet federal pollution targets. Big diesel trucks and off-road construction equipment account for up to half of nitrogen oxides, a major contributor to the valley's notoriously poor air quality, according to regulators.

As a result of the recession, the state could afford to soften the rules in the short term and still meet regional pollution targets, state air board officials said.

The air board first hinted at changing the rules at a hearing in December.

Proposals outlined Thursday include giving diesel truck operators up to two more years to install pollution filters on a portion of their fleets.

The filter rules are now scheduled to be phased in starting in 2011. Changes to off-road construction equipment rules might include classifying more vehicles as "low-use," meaning that owners would not be required to replace them with cleaner-burning models.

Industry: We can't afford it

Industry leaders are pushing for even more concessions, saying companies are suffering from the recession and cannot afford to replace or retrofit equipment.

"California's construction workers are struggling, and the last thing that they need to get is another round of bad news," Michael Kennedy, a lawyer for the Associated General Contractors of America, said in a statement. The organization, which represents construction companies, wants the off-road rules delayed for five years.

Air-quality activists said they were open to tweaking the rules, but don't want wholesale changes.

"We just don't want to lose sight of the fact that diesel soot is a carcinogen," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen of the American Lung Association of California.

Industry leaders seized on an admission by the air board staff members that they mistakenly inflated the emissions inventory of off-road vehicles by as much as 100 percent. In interviews, staff members said they discovered that their modeling overestimated how much fuel was burned by the equipment.

Most air board members praised staff members for admitting the error and taking a second look. But Dr. John Telles, the valley's representative on the board, was critical, saying "to be off that much is a little bit incredible to me."

The off-road equipment rules, approved in 2007, called for older models to be retrofitted or replaced starting last month and phased in through 2025. However, most of the rule is on hold while the state waits for authorization from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The on-road truck rule, approved in 2008, requires owners of older heavy-duty trucks to install particulate pollution filters starting in 2011. Beginning in 2013, owners must replace older engines with 2010 or newer models.

Fresno resident John Lawson, owner of trucking company Lawson Rock & Oil, parted ways with industry leaders and called for the rules to remain as is.

His company has upgraded 125 of its 250 trucks, he said, and the investment is paying off because they get better fuel mileage. Other trucking firms are not acting because the air board keeps indicating it will change the rules, he said.

"People are not taking it seriously," he said.