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Defusing the Flap Over Diesel

The nine-member California Scientific Review Panel for Toxic Contaminants was formed by the Legislature 15 years ago to work with state health officials, the Air Resources Board and the Department of Food and Agriculture to identify and help control hazardous air pollution from pesticides and other chemicals. Most of its members are respected scientists from the University of California.

After nine years of often rancorous debate and close study, the review panel has declared that diesel exhaust poses a serious cancer danger and has urged steps to protect the public’s health. This comes on the heels of a study conducted for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that suggests that even low-level exposure to diesel exhaust can increase a person’s risk of cancer.

This, of course, has caused an uproar, largely because the economy has come to depend on diesel for everything from buses to railroad engines to long-haul trucks. Now, the California Air Resources Board will have to consider what, if anything, to do about the review panel’s findings.

Here’s a suggestion for the interim: Tone down the panicky rhetoric about the collapse of California’s economy, a far-fetched notion. Every gain in air quality in this state seems to have been preceded by predictions of economic ruin; the ultimate result usually is better technology that spreads to the rest of the nation.

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It would also make calming sense to consider the careful long-range planning of an agency like the Santa Monica Municipal Bus Line, known as Big Blue. It handles 21 million passengers annually and is one of the nation’s best and most efficient transit operations.

It already has a fleet of advanced diesel buses that surpasses 1998 air quality standards and reduces toxic emissions by 75% to 90% over its older buses. John Catoe, director of Big Blue, now figures that the municipal agency has made its last diesel bus purchase. Interim buses could use compressed or liquefied natural gas before the agency achieves its final aim, vehicles that use fuel cells and emit little more than water vapor.

That’s the kind of forward thinking that Southern California needs and that other public agencies and private companies would do well to emulate.


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