California air quality officials are again moving to relax tough rules to clean up aging diesel trucks that are among the state's worst remaining sources of air pollution.
The changes being considered this week by the state Air Resources Board come in response to pressure from small trucking firms and owner-operators, required to install costly diesel particulate filters or upgrade to cleaner models for the first time this year, who have pleaded for more time to comply.
"We're all struggling," said Allen Forsyth of Los Angeles, who operates a three-truck fleet that hauls local freight near LAX. "I used everything I had to buy a 2012 truck. But I'm absolutely broke now."
The proposal would push back deadlines by a few years for small fleets, lightly used trucks and those in rural areas with cleaner air, and offer other adjustments to assist truck owners. Officials say the changes would slow, but not sacrifice, the state's progress on air quality and achieve 93% of pollution cuts envisioned through 2023.
Environmentalists and other clean-air advocates have urged the board to limit amendments to the regulation and preserve what they call the single biggest step California has taken to reduce health risks from air pollution.
"We're asking them to hold the line," said Diane Bailey, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The changes would for several years slow the pace of cutting soot and smog-forming gases from the nation's most polluted basins in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, air quality officials acknowledge. But they say diesel emissions would fall to the same level as the existing regulation by 2020, when nearly every truck in the state will be required to have a filter to remove soot from its exhaust.
The proposal also has exposed a divide within the trucking industry. The deadline extensions are fiercely opposed by truckers who have already paid to replace their vehicles or retrofit them with soot filters that can cost $20,000 per truck. They say they will be undercut by small competitors who will be able to operate at a lower cost by delaying those purchases.
"I'm paying the price while the little guys that chose to ignore what was going on and put their heads in the sand get rewarded," said Chris Torres, president of F&L Farms Trucking Inc., which has spent $1 million in the last two years to replace most of its 15-truck fleet in the Colusa County community of Princeton.
In 2008 California cracked down on diesel pollution with aggressive rules to phase out older, dirty trucks. The regulation has been crucial to the state's efforts to reduce exposure to cancer-causing diesel soot, curb smog and reach a goal of cutting diesel emissions 85% below 2000 levels by 2020.
The air board loosened the measure once before, in 2010, to offer relief to the trucking industry in the wake of the recession. At the time, air quality officials estimated the rules would prevent about 3,500 premature deaths from fine particle pollution and save billions of dollars in healthcare costs.
Air Resources Board officials say the latest changes would not significantly erode those health benefits and that the rules would remain the toughest in the nation. The deferred deadlines, they say, would actually ensure that more truckers make the required upgrades by giving them more time to access loans and grants.
"If not, more fleets will probably run underground, try to avoid us and leave it to our enforcement efforts alone," said Tony Brasil, who oversees implementation of the heavy-duty diesel regulation for the Air Resources Board.
Diesel soot is by far the largest contributor to cancer risk of any air pollution source in California and was declared a toxic air contaminant by the state in 1998.
The state's rules apply to nearly all 1 million heavy-duty diesel trucks that operate in the state and are one of the top sources of smog-forming gases called nitrogen oxides and tiny particles known as PM2.5. Those pollutants are tied to lung and heart disease and increase asthma rates, bronchitis cases and hospital admissions, particularly in neighborhoods near traffic.
Diesel pollution also contributes to climate change because it contains black carbon that absorbs sunlight, gives off heat and accelerates snowmelt.
The Air Resources Board, which consists of 12 members from across the state who are appointed by the governor, is expected to vote on the proposal at a public meeting Thursday in Sacramento.