Diesel Truckers Testy About Pollution Tests

New hot line in Chicago is part of a nationwide effort to urge local officials to police smog-producing trucks like cars.

The 16-wheeler puffing dark smoke as it accelerates through the intersection of Blue Island and Western Avenue is a candidate for Chicago's new pollution hot line.

"People see trucks belching black, sooty exhaust and understandably don't like it," says Ron Burke of the American Lung Association in Chicago, which is cosponsoring the hot line.

The Windy City campaign to reduce the nasty stew of toxins belched by older diesel engines is part of a national effort by environmentalists and health advocates to urge local governments to treat trucks like cars. Currently, 28 states have pollution-testing programs for cars, while only five states plus the Salt Lake City area have tests for trucks.

But Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and New York are experimenting with truck-testing programs. And starting June 1, California inspectors will be able to stop trucks and electronically measure their emissions.

In the Chicago area, 10 billboards advertise a hot line for people to complain about polluting trucks. The complaints are forwarded to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Illinois State Police, local mayors, and truck companies to help them crack down on the offending rigs. In its first month, the hot line has received more than 400 calls.

The hot line sponsors are also asking officials in Chicago and its suburbs to test trucks. Many of the dirtiest trucks only travel short distances, Mr. Burke says. Police officers can stop trucks that are releasing clouds of smoke, place a sensor over their exhaust pipes, and measure how dirty the exhaust is, he says. "Doing this test is so simple it only takes 10 minutes," he says.

Henry Henderson at Chicago's Department of Environment, says that the idea shows promise but "we've got an awful lot of assignments for our police force already."

The trucking industry argues that it's already cleaning up its act. New trucks release just one-eighth the pollution of trucks built 11 years ago, says Fred Serpe of the Illinois Transportation Association, which represents 14,000 trucking companies. The cleaner-burning engines are in 95 percent of the trucks on the road today, and the remaining 5 percent will be converted in the next two years as their old engines give out, Mr. Serpe says.

Random emissions tests penalize all trucks, not just ones that pollute, making them late for their deliveries. "It's a needless act for an industry that's fixing the problem," he says.

California officials disagree. "There are obviously very clean trucks on the road that are getting cleaner," says Jerry Martin at the California Air Resources Board. "But there are older vehicles and even new trucks that emit a lot of emissions because they've been in an accident or are not well maintained." Even though they account for only 2 percent of the vehicles in California, diesel engines emit about 30 percent of the nitrogen oxide and 60 percent of the particulates coming from vehicles, Mr. Martin says.

The US Environmental Protection Agency requires regions that don't meet clean-air standards to test automobile emissions, but no such rules exist for heavy-duty trucks. States have less incentive to test trucks licensed within their borders because they so often cross state lines, says Tracey Bradish, an EPA environmental protection specialist.

Congress is reluctant to start a national truck-testing program because it would require changing the Clean Air Act. Instead, the EPA works with diesel manufacturers and trucking companies to improve the emissions of new engines. The trucking industry has sent out videos and brochures to 60,000 truckers, encouraging them to maintain their trucks in ways that don't pollute. "The industry doesn't want it any more than the public does because it gives us a negative image we can't afford," says Allen Schaeffer, vice president of the American Trucking Associations.

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