Diesel Debate Is Set to ignite

Roosevelt is a Times staff writer.

Two decades ago, Rosa Vielmas, young and hopeful, moved to Riverside County for cleaner air. Goodbye to smoggy East Los Angeles. Hello to Mira Loma, an unincorporated speck of a village, and a one-story stucco bungalow with a yard. “We could see the stars,” she recalled.

But that was before Mira Loma became one of Southern California’s “diesel death zones,” as activists call the truck-choked freeways and distribution hubs that fan out from the massive ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Today, a blanket of smog and dust smothers Mira Loma’s grimy subdivisions. “You think the warehouses will bring work and money,” said Vielmas, 44, who became a community organizer after her two grandsons developed asthma, which she blames on diesel pollution. “The cost of industrialization -- we are paying for it with our health.”


This week, a decades-long struggle between California regulators and the national trucking industry will come to a head in Sacramento when the Air Resources Board votes on whether to require owners to fit about 230,000 heavy-duty trucks with diesel exhaust traps and replace about 350,000 older, dirty engines over the next 15 years.

Big-rig crackdown

The crackdown is unprecedented: No other state requires existing trucks to be retrofitted or retired. And it raises thorny interstate commerce issues: Any big rig that travels through California, no matter where it is registered, would be affected.

At a cost of $5.5 billion, the diesel rule, which covers trucks and buses, would be the most expensive air pollution regulation ever adopted in California.

Regulators say, however, that the cost of failing to act would be far higher. Heavy-duty rigs are responsible for a third of all the smog in California. State officials project that the new rule would save 9,400 lives between 2010, when it takes effect, and 2025. With tens of thousands of hospital admissions linked to air pollution, Californians would save up to $68 billion in healthcare costs in the first 15 years, according to economists for the air board.

Last week, 17 national and state health groups, including the American Heart Assn., the American Cancer Society and the California Medical Assn., called for passage of the rule, noting that half of all Californians live within a mile of a freeway.

“These pollutants are taking a serious toll on California’s public health,” they wrote to the air board, adding that diesel exhaust can cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease, cancer and premature death.

But with the nation spiraling into recession, employment plunging and credit scarce, is this the time to impose a costly regulation on a vital industry?

Fleet owners have held news conferences in Ontario, Bakersfield, Fresno and other cities, demanding that the rule be relaxed and postponed.

Diesel traps cost up to $15,000, a stiff burden for small operators, many of whom are struggling to meet payments on trucks worth up to $130,000 each. And big rigs can be driven for as long as 25 years, so replacing them early would be expensive.

“This rule will likely put me out of business and over 60 people out of work,” Ron Silva, chief executive of Westar Transport in Fresno County, told the Air Resources Board. “This rule can cripple the California economy as we know it. . . . Farmers will not be able to afford to have the crops hauled out of the field.”

If shipping fees rise, Southern California ports, which handle 40% of the nation’s containerized imports, could lose business to Canadian and East Coast terminals. Out-of-state truckers are already threatening to stay away. “As you regulate more, the more we will refuse your freight,” warned Nathan Peaslee, a Michigan driver who hauls potato chips and televisions.

The state is promising truckers more than $1 billion in subsidies to make the transition. Nonetheless, the American Trucking Assn. is expected to fight the rule in court. Air board lawyers are confident the state can fend off a legal challenge. Judges, they say, will take into account the fact that California cannot meet a federal mandate to clean its air without a tough diesel rule.

In Mira Loma, the trade-offs are etched in stark relief.

Stop by the one-bedroom cottage where Vielmas’ daughter, Ana Gomez, 23, cares for her 2-year-old son Julio. Gomez’s husband has a job painting buses at a nearby depot.

But Julio pays the price of pollution. On the kitchen table is a bill for asthma drugs and a nebulizer that sprays a mist of medication through a face mask. “Sometimes he chokes and turns purple,” Gomez said. “I have to take him to the hospital.”

There is no history of asthma in the family. Vielmas and Gomez blame the trucks. Pollution is known to aggravate asthma symptoms although the causes of asthma remain a subject of debate.

“We’re known as the ‘Warehouse Capital of Southern California,’ ” said Vielmas, speaking Spanish. A five-minute drive from home, acres of shipping terminals surround a Union Pacific rail yard. Stacks of steel containers roll along the tracks.

Trucks stream in and out of vast parking lots: Wal-Mart, Costco, Sears, Thomson, Hyundai. Imported goods are unloaded, repacked and hauled out. Across from fast-food joints, tractor-trailers idle -- illegally -- running their air conditioning.

“When we moved here, my husband milked cows at a dairy,” Vielmas said. The dairies have been crowded out by warehouses, and now her husband operates a forklift at one of them.

Pollution study

Vielmas steers through an intersection off California 60 where, two years ago, she and Gomez were trained to count vehicles and measure emissions for a USC air pollution study. In one hour, they counted 445 trucks and 2,125 cars. Other teams tallied up to 800 trucks an hour on nearby streets.

Unlike gasoline-powered cars, which feature catalytic converters, today’s diesel trucks are mostly unregulated. Federal standards will require clean engines in new models as of 2010, but Mira Loma residents say they cannot wait decades for hundreds of thousands of trucks to be retired. The USC study of 12 Central and Southern California communities found that Mira Loma children had the lowest lung capacity compared with other areas -- a handicap likely to affect them for life.

The findings infuriated the community. A local group, Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, where Vielmas first volunteered and recently began to work full-time, mounted a billboard over the freeway. It read “Welcome to Riverside County! We’re #1: Dirtiest Air in the Nation; Deadly Health Impacts.”

School affected

Across from the rail yard, where tens of thousands of imported cars are loaded on to tractor-trailers, Vielmas gestures toward Jurupa Valley High School, where students are exercising on the fields.

“When they played games here, they had to use inhalers. When they played at other schools, they didn’t have to use them,” Vielmas recalled.

Eventually, parents concluded that the rail yard exit across the street was a major cause. After three years of demonstrations and political pressure, truckers were required to switch to a different gate, said Vielmas, whose four children attended the school.

Now community activists are demanding 1,500-foot buffer zones between homes and warehouses. And they are battling a proposed 425-home subdivision near a planned six-lane truck route, saying that health risks should be disclosed to buyers.

Would Vielmas and Gomez think of moving away? They hesitate. In Mira Loma, most everyone is related to everyone else, or at least acquainted. “This community was here first, and then the warehouses came,” Vielmas said.

They see no contradiction between their husbands’ jobs -- dependent on the truck-hauling economy -- and their activism. Truckers experience higher lung cancer rates than the general population, according to health authorities. During the election, Vielmas, born in Mexico and now an American citizen, knocked on 200 doors for a voter-registration drive.

“I hear their stories,” she said. “Many people are suffering.”

So Vielmas and her family won’t leave. This week, they are looking to Sacramento for relief. “We want regulations,” she said. “We want them enforced. I want to keep fighting.”




Cleaning up dirty diesels

Trucks are the largest source of two major air pollutants: diesel particulates and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). Both contribute to premature death, cancer and heart and lung disease. The California Air Resources Board’s new regulation would:

Cover heavy-duty rigs weighing 14,000 pounds or more.

Beginning in 2011, require older trucks to capture 85% of particulates with exhaust traps.

Beginning in 2013, reduce NOx by gradually replacing older trucks and buses with 2010 models.

Require the cleanest technology (equivalent to 2010 model year engines) for all trucks on California roads by 2023.

Require all school buses to have particulate traps by 2018.


Source: California Air Resources Board