A new air cleanup rule approved Sept. 27 promises faster replacement or retrofitting of the dirtiest trucks on the road: the diesel-powered big rigs that ply southern California's highways by the tens of thousands on their way to and from the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest.
Although California and its network of air-pollution control districts have battled for decades to clean up the skies – and have more measures on the drawing board – this regulation targeting trucking is likely to have the biggest impact and to become a model for other places with serious pollution problems, say environmentalists.
"This is a big deal nationally because it requires the fixing of problems on trucks that are already on the road," says Kathryn Phillips, manager of California Clean Air for Life Campaign, a program of Environmental Defense. "This could mean reaching lower emissions from trucks ... 10 to 20 years sooner than would happen if we just waited for older trucks to wear out and be replaced at their natural pace."
The rule, submitted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and approved by local and state officials Thursday, applies to the area that includes Los Angeles, which has the dirtiest skies in America. It was opposed by long-haul truckers, who say the rule requires them to make expensive upgrades whose costs, in the end, will be passed along to consumers of transported goods.
In California, about two-thirds of targeted emissions come from mobile sources, and 70 to 80 percent of that comes from diesel.
Here in the City of Commerce, a Los Angeles suburb known for its pro-business climate and as a manufacturing and industrial center, Angelo Logan applauds the new rule. A former mechanic who grew up here, he says the community's high rates of respiratory illness – 2.5 times higher than the national average – have led people with families to relocate elsewhere.
"Young people want to raise their children in the same neighborhood … but are scared because of the health risks of diesel emissions," says Mr. Logan. "Regulatory agencies need to use their authority to mandate that the trucking industry become a responsible corporate citizen."
Los Angeles tops the list of most-polluted skies, but California's San Joaquin Valley, Houston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, and Dallas are right behind – and all are struggling to meet federally mandated clean-air deadlines.
"Other cities and regions of the country [that] are looking for ways to reach clean-air goals will likely look to this California regimen for guidance," says Ms. Phillips.
About 687,000 diesel trucks produce more than one-quarter of California's particulate air pollution and cause 2,000 premature deaths and 3,600 hospital visits annually, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The US Environmental Protection Agency has given the SCAQMD until 2014 to bring its particulate-emissions count into compliance with US law and until 2023 for ozone. The new truck rules, along with other measures, are expected to help California reach those goals sooner.
"The strengthening they've done with this new plan and [new] truck rule is substantial," says NRDC scientist Diane Bailey.
Truckers and trucking associations say the new regulations will sock them with billions in new costs. Trucks, they say, are responsible for smaller portions of noxious emissions than people think – only 9 percent of targeted emissions.
"[This new regulation] is like telling everybody that they need to buy a new Prius to bring to work," says Julie Sauls of the California Trucking Association. "We want to do our part but in a feasible way that doesn't cripple our industry."
Independent truckers, many of whom barely eke out a living, say investing in new equipment adds up to yet one more cost that many cannot afford.
"We pay a lot in taxes and tags and license fees for commercial insurance … and they make us use special machinery to test our trucks … and now they want us to do another one," says Ester Hodge, a 30-year trucking veteran and part owner of AJE Trucking Inc. in East L.A. "This is another nuisance."
Heightened collaboration between the California Air Resources Board (CARB). led by new chair Mary Nichols, and local boards such as SCAQMD and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District prompted the breakthrough rule on trucking, say many observers.
"Finally, the state is stepping in to help protect valley residents from this public-health emergency," says Carolina Simunovic of Fresno Metro Ministry, a faith-based health- and social-advocacy organization.
Fresno and Bakersfield, cities in California's agricultural San Joaquin Valley, are listed third and fourth in the US for metro areas most polluted by short-term particle pollution. Besides affecting farms and ranches, smog from noxious exhaust creates visible gauze as far away as Sequoia National Forest – and also damages trees there.
"We're encouraged that the state air board will help us breathe easier by reducing pollution from some of the valley's worst mobile-source air-pollution offenders," says Sara Sharpe of the Coalition for Clean Air.
CARB approved a measure in July that regulates construction and other industrial equipment. This month it is expected to turn its attention to exhaust emissions from ships and harbor craft, which spew tons of noxious fumes while idling in port.