Daniel Weintraub: Diesel pollution regulations choke construction

08/22/2008 3:23 AM

08/22/2008 8:33 AM

Mike Shaw didn't want to be caught by surprise when the state starting cracking down on diesel engines. His San Diego construction business owned more than 100 of them. He paid attention when the state's air pollution regulators wrote new rules requiring owners to clean up diesel fleets.

As he culled the oldest, dirtiest engines, Shaw thought he was well on his way to satisfying the state's rules. Then he ran the numbers, and the state's calculator showed he wasn't even close.

He's not alone. California's construction industry, already laid low by the economy, is coming to terms with the regulation the Air Resources Board adopted a year ago. The nation's toughest rules require owners of off-road diesel equipment to retrofit old engines with soot traps or get rid of them. The rules begin taking effect in 2010, and each year get tighter until, eventually, all diesels in California will have to be the latest models.

Diesel exhaust's tiny particles -- about 1/70 the diameter of a human hair -- can lodge in your lungs. Chemicals in those particles can then dissolve in the lungs' fluid linings and be absorbed into the body. The state attributes 2,000 premature deaths a year to diesel pollution.

So the crackdown sounds sensible. But all those diesel-powered machines cost tens of thousands of dollars, and were purchased under the rules in place at the time. The people who bought them believed their equipment would last long enough to allow them to recoup their investments.

Now the rules have changed, and they've been forced to sell off their machines. With the private construction business collapsing, demand for old equipment is low. Add a flood of equipment on the market, and the machines are going for pennies on the dollar.

Less than two years ago, Shaw's firm owned 117 pieces of diesel equipment. Today his fleet is half that size. And it is much cleaner. Two years ago, nearly 80 percent of the horsepower in his fleet came from the oldest, dirtiest engines that were the air board's biggest concern.

Today, less than 20 percent of his fleet's power comes from the oldest machines, and a third comes from state-of-the-art engines. But he still does not meet the threshold required by 2010.

"We spent a lot of money upgrading our fleet, and we lost a lot of money throwing away equipment that was still in pretty darn good shape," Shaw said. "It's kind of an exercise in futility."

Shaw's industry is preparing to ask the air board to slow implementation of the regulation. The industry says it will still meet the clean-air standards the state is requiring for 2012. But it wants more flexibility.

Besides, the construction industry argues, with housing starts at a 17-year-low, revenues down 24 percent and diesel fuel consumption off by the same amount, diesel emissions are probably below the level projected for 2010, if not 2012.

Erik White, the air board manager overseeing implementation of the diesel regulation, concedes that point. But he said the plan took a long view that anticipated business cycles. Companies that shrink their fleets or keep old machines idle get credit for that, he said. Subsidies are available to help companies make the transition. And the smallest firms, the ones least able to replace engines or retrofit equipment, already have a later compliance date.

"I don't think we need to make changes to the rule to address what is happening in the economy," White said.

If White's bosses at the air board agree, the construction companies will have to absorb the blow. Some probably won't make it. Others will have to charge more to maintain the same profits.

Californians want clean air, good jobs and affordable houses and roads. Sometimes all of those things are not compatible. Something's got to give. In this case, it's the construction industry.


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