State orders diesel trucks to clean up

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California regulators cracked down on diesel air pollution Friday, adopting the nation's toughest rules on heavy-duty trucks, despite pleas from truckers who said they would be bankrupted in a sinking economy.

The state Air Resources Board voted unanimously for the measure that requires truckers to retrofit or replace older rigs, starting in 2011. The board declared that the health benefits far outweighed the financial pain in a state that has the dirtiest air in the nation. Diesel trucks are responsible for a third of the smog in California.

"This is an industry that has an enormous impact on people's lives," Chairman Mary Nichols said. "This regulation will save more than 9,000 lives and reduce the toxic emissions that cause cancer and birth defects."

In two days of hearings, high-school students from East Oakland, nurses and doctors from the San Joaquin Valley, community activists from Pacoima and Commerce pleaded with the board to control the soot-belching rigs that travel through their neighborhoods.

Ana Sanchez, a single mother from Salinas, held up a photo of her asthmatic daughter, Julianna, using an inhaler. "This ignoring pollution has gone on long enough," she told the board. "Yes, a trucker may lose a job . . . but what about my daughter losing her life?"

The testimony of truckers was wrenching, too, with many small owner-operators -- including dump truck drivers from San Fernando and loggers from Eureka -- telling the board they would lose their livelihoods. Their life savings are tied up in trucks that are unmarketable because they will be illegal within a few years, they said.

"At the stroke of your pen, you will have trashed my assets and turned them into toxic waste," said Greg Pile, a San Diego beekeeper who delivers hives with five trucks that are more than 18 years old.

The federal government is forcing new diesel trucks to carry far cleaner engines by 2010. But that does not affect older models. Big rigs can last up to 25 years, so it would take years for the current fleet to turn over. State officials say existing trucks must be phased out in order to meet federal mandates to clean California's air -- particularly in the heavily polluted South Coast Basin and San Joaquin Valley.

The new rules, would cover any trucks weighing more than 14,000 pounds that travel through California, no matter where they are registered. Owners would be required to retrofit about 230,000 heavy-duty rigs with diesel exhaust traps and replace about 350,000 older, dirty engines by 2023.

No other state requires existing trucks to be retrofitted or retired, but that could soon change. "Other states are going to pick up on what California has done," Nichols predicted. "They usually look to California for leadership."

The regulation, which is the most expensive measure adopted by the air board, is expected to cost truckers $5.5 billion.

The state will offer about $1 billion in subsidies, but many operators complained they are not eligible for the aid because they live in rural areas, their mileage is low or they don't meet other requirements.

"We fall through the cracks," said Angel Raposa, who owns five dump trucks in the Bay Area with her husband. With the economy in recession, they are operating three trucks part time. "Now our equipment has lost so much value, in anticipation of this rule, that we are unable to sell. We had always counted on the fact that selling our equipment could carry us through hard times."

Diesel exhaust can cause lung and heart disease, cancer and premature deaths, according to representatives of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Lung Assn. and the California Medical Assn., which endorsed the rules. Board economists said the measure would save Californians up to $68 billion in healthcare costs in the first 15 years.

"I get emotional," Christine Cordera, an activist with the Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative in Oakland, told the board. "We have seen people sick for decades. We have lost people we love. At what point do we say our children's lives are more important than a company's bottom line?"

Air board member Dr. John Telles noted that the rule could also have negative health effects for truckers. "Having taken care of cardiovascular patients, I can say . . . when a person loses his job, his health falls apart," Telles said. "I don't think the state of California wants to put people out of work."

In a spirited discussion, Nichols and other board members responded that the economy may be on the upswing by 2011, when the regulations kicks in. However, in adopting the final rule, the board unanimously added a provision to extend the compliance deadline for fleets of three trucks or fewer by one year. And they called for the staff to report next year on how truckers are faring economically. They said they will seek to expand subsidies.

The board eased the rules for agricultural trucks with low mileage and for school buses, after local officials said they did not have the funds to replace buses.

It also passed a measure requiring long-haul truckers to install fuel-efficient tires and aerodynamic devices on their trailers to improve fuel economy and lower carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change. Heavy duty trucks are responsible for 7% of the state's global warming emissions. Despite the economic effects on a major industry, the diesel rule debate remained remarkably free of political interference. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been vocal on other environmental issues, such as renewable energy and climate change, issued no statements.

No legislators testified against the measure. Owing perhaps to the widespread public awareness of diesel pollution, 14 state senators and 24 Assembly members wrote the board, saying that "an effective heavy-duty diesel truck rule is essential to clean up California's air."

margot.roosevelt@latimes.com

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