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Virginia trucking firm fined $100,000 for violating California's diesel pollution rules

A Virginia firm will pay a $100,000 fine and spend $290,000 on pollution-reduction programs for operating 73 trucks in California without diesel particulate filters, federal and state officials announced Thursday.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s settlement with Estes Express Lines was the first federal enforcement action against a company for violating California’s tough regulations to slash emissions of toxic diesel soot and smog-forming pollutants from diesel trucks.

“Today we mark the closure of the first of what we hope are many cases,” said Todd Sax, chief of enforcement for the California Air Resources Board, adding that it “sends a strong message that trucking companies, even those based outside of California, must meet California’s requirements when operating here.”

The 2008 regulations require heavy-duty diesel trucks either to meet 2010 engine standards or upgrade their vehicles with filters that reduce diesel particulate emissions by 85% or more. The rules, being phased in through 2023, apply to all 1 million diesel trucks operating in California, including 625,000 that are registered out of state.

Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's regional administrator, said compliance with California's rules is crucial because diesel trucks are one of the largest sources of smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions in the state with the worst air quality in the nation.

The EPA approved the state's heavy-duty diesel regulations in 2012, giving the agency the authority to enforce them under the federal Clean Air Act.

In the spring of 2014, the agency sent letters to Estes and about a dozen other large, interstate trucking companies requesting information on their compliance with California's diesel emissions rules, Blumenfeld said.

In response, Estes disclosed that about 15% of its 500-truck California fleet was not equipped with particulate filters and that it had failed to verify whether the trucks of subcontractors it had hired were in compliance.

The EPA cited Estes, based in Richmond, Va., for  those violations in February. The company now operates only new trucks in California, the EPA said.

As part of its settlement with federal officials, Estes agreed to pay more than $250,000 to help with the replacement of old wood-burning stoves with cleaner devices in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the state's most polluted regions.

The company also will spend $35,000 to fund a UC Davis-run program to teach out-of-state trucking firms about California's diesel regulations.

"We think that's an appropriate use of the penalty and we look forward to a compliant future within California," said Nick Scola, a spokesman for Estes. The company agrees with the EPA's findings, he said, and is "working diligently" to meet regulators' requirements.

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Blumenfeld said the EPA expects to announce other settlements involving similar emissions violations by large, out-of-state trucking firms in the near future.

State air-quality officials estimated last year that about 85% of the trucks operating in California were in compliance with the new diesel rules.

California regulators have enforced the diesel regulations as they have begun to take effect in recent years by conducting on-road inspections and other investigations and issuing fines for the companies found in violation.

In May, the Air Resources Board fined Bakersfield-based Randy's Trucking Inc. $524,675, the largest penalty to date, for failing to clean up its fleet in accordance with the regulations.

California's rules for heavy-duty trucks are the toughest in the nation and aim to sharply reduce health risks from air pollution by cutting the amount of cancer-causing soot in diesel exhaust. If fully implemented, they will prevent about 3,500 premature deaths in California between 2010 and 2025, according to state air-quality officials.

For more news on California's air quality and environment, follow me @tonybarboza 

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