Supermarkets Will Buy Clean-Fuel Trucks to Settle Suit


In a landmark agreement, Southern California’s three largest supermarket chains will purchase alternative-fuel trucks and warn nearby communities of the cancer threat posed by diesel exhaust wafting from their big rigs.

Ralphs, Safeway/Vons and Albertsons/Lucky Stores on Thursday settled a controversial 2-year-old civil lawsuit filed by environmental groups and the California attorney general’s office. The companies were accused of exposing neighborhoods near distribution centers in Los Angeles, Buena Park, El Monte, Santa Fe Springs and San Leandro to cancer-causing exhaust in violation of Proposition 65, California’s anti-toxics law.

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer on Thursday called it a “historic agreement” because “for the first time companies that generate large amounts of traffic are taking responsibility for the harmful emissions they cause in a particular community.”


The settlement has national importance because it will provide a high-profile boost to cleaner-fuel truck technologies that have struggled to find a market.

The case has been watched closely by the state trucking industry, which fears that diesel operators throughout California will be held responsible under state law for exposing neighborhoods to exhaust.

“If diesel causes cancer, ban it. But don’t blame the trucking companies. It’s the government’s job to regulate emissions,” said Stephanie Williams, environmental manager of the California Trucking Assn. The agreement, she said, “will cost every consumer in food and retail goods” while doing little to improve air quality.

Environmentalists warned Thursday that they have already compiled a list of other companies with California distribution centers that pose a high cancer risk in neighborhoods. They said additional companies will be sued unless they, too, voluntarily begin switching to trucks that run on natural gas or other cleaner fuels.

“There is a target on their backs, and they should be scared,” said Gail Ruderman Feuer, a senior attorney with the Los Angeles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which represented the Coalition for Clean Air and the Environmental Law Foundation in the supermarket case. “Somebody has to shake up this industry. Any facility that has trucks going in and out needs to think seriously about their neighbors.”

Largest Fleet in the Nation

The supermarket companies will replace 150 of their diesel trucks within three years--creating the largest assemblage of alternative-fuel big rigs in the nation. They also agreed to limit diesel truck idling to three minutes and to mail bilingual cancer risk warnings to 25,000 neighboring residents.


Diesel trucks are considered one of California’s biggest polluters. The fine particles, or carbon soot, in diesel exhaust have been declared a cancer-causing substance by the state Air Resources Board. Diesel engine technology has improved in recent years, but the average diesel truck still emits as much soot as 150 average passenger cars.

Companies have been wary of trying new truck technologies, although natural-gas trucks that cut emissions in half have been available for several years. They worry about higher costs, reliability and constraints that make natural-gas engines impractical for long hauls.

The majority of the three companies’ fleets will still be diesel-powered. But the numbers that must run on alternative fuel are substantial--40% in the case of Vons’ Santa Fe Springs fleet.

Vons and Lucky were already planning to test the new technologies when the lawsuit was filed two years ago. The settlement ensures that the conversion will take place.

“This is the first time that the private sector and public sector have worked together to develop a program to test the feasibility of alternative fuels,” said Deborah Lambert, corporate director of public affairs for Safeway Inc., which owns Vons. “That’s what we see as a great benefit to this settlement. We hope this will be a model for other businesses elsewhere.”

A fourth supermarket company, Stater Bros., which operates a distribution center in Colton, was also sued and has not reached a settlement. The Natural Resources Defense Council targeted the supermarket companies because their large distribution centers operate in residential areas and air monitoring showed the cancer risk in some backyards was 10 to 100 times higher than the state’s Proposition 65 standard.


Proposition 65, overwhelmingly approved by state voters in 1986, requires California companies to warn people who are exposed to prescribed levels of cancer-causing pollution.

“These companies will still bring groceries to our communities but not diesel exhaust,” Feuer said.

Lockyer said the settlement attempts to provide “environmental justice” for the five communities.

“These distribution centers tend to be in poorer neighborhoods filled with black and brown kids,” he said.

The grocery companies say it has not been proven that their distribution centers posed an inordinate cancer risk because the case was settled before trial. Cancer risk estimates from diesel exhaust are highly controversial.

“We are unaware of any substantiated risks, but in order to resolve the suit we agreed to provide the warnings under Prop. 65,” said Judy Decker, spokeswoman for Albertsons, which recently merged with Lucky Stores.


Williams of the trucking group called the environmental groups that filed the litigation “bounty hunters.”

“These guys are environmental ambulance chasers looking for people to sue,” she said. “You don’t go after the end user of the product, the trucker. When people went after the tobacco industry, they didn’t go after the smoker, they went after the manufacturer.”

Opposition From Industry

The trucking industry--which includes many of the state’s largest retailers--is a powerful political group in California, and many company owners consider the lawsuits an assault on their livelihood.

Many members of the California Trucking Assn. did not support former Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren in his unsuccessful campaign for governor because he had filed the case against the supermarkets along with the environmental groups. During the campaign, Lungren’s aides privately reassured truckers that his office was only seeking warning signs at the distribution centers. But in reaching the settlement, Lockyer, his aides and the environmental groups negotiated larger concessions from the supermarkets.

Under the settlement, the three companies can choose “dual-fuel” trucks that run 85% natural gas/15% diesel. The lone manufacturer of heavy-duty engines powered 100% by natural gas stopped making them last year because of low demand.

Dual-fuel trucks, made by Caterpillar, cost about $25,000 more than equivalent diesels. However, grants from the South Coast Air Quality Management District and tax breaks will cover most of the costs for companies.


Vons, which has two distribution centers covered by the settlement, has purchased 30 dual-fuel trucks and will buy 30 more by the end of 2001, Lambert said. Ralphs and Albertsons will each buy 25.

Also, all three companies over the next two years will convert all their “yard goats”--about 40 truck cabs that remain on the grounds of the distribution centers and move goods. Those trucks are higher polluting than full-scale big rigs because they are powered by off-road engines. They will be converted to natural gas or propane.

Also, all diesel trucks at the companies’ 17 distribution centers in California will be equipped with devices that shut off engines after three minutes of idling. The companies also will pay $895,000 in attorney fees and funds for diesel research and public education.

“Our hope is this is a beginning of a long commitment to clean-fuel trucks,” Feuer said. “We want all companies to get off their diesel diet and switch to clean-fuel trucks.”


Warning From Supermarkets

Here are the five supermarket distribution centers that will warn nearby residents of the cancer risk posed by their diesel trucks’ exhaust:

* Albertsons/Lucky, 6565 Knott Ave., Buena Park

* Ralphs, 4841 W. San Fernando Road, Los Angeles

* Safeway/Vons, 12801 Excelsior St., Santa Fe Springs

* Safeway/Vons, 4300 Shirley Ave., El Monte

* Albertsons/Lucky, 1701 Marne Blvd., San Leandro (in Northern California)


An estimated 25,000 neighbors will receive a warning that says, in part:

“Diesel exhaust is a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer. You are receiving this notice because you live in an area determined to be exposed to diesel exhaust and to require a warning pursuant to Proposition 65. We want you to know that we have initiated a number of measures to reduce the amount of diesel exhaust generated by our operations.”