Energy & Environment

Truck Stoppers

A 14-state pact aims to enforce stringent new diesel standards to keep dirty-running vehicles off U.S. highways.
by | January 2001

For most Americans, all those trucks barreling down the road with out- of-state plates are the most visible evidence of commerce across state boundaries. And few would argue that the U.S. government shouldn't regulate toxic diesel emissions. Certainly, controlling air pollution caused by the big freight-hauling rigs that carry on interstate commerce seems like an obvious federal responsibility.

So maybe it's out of place for state governments to take on the task of cleaning up truck engines that pollute the air not just within their boundaries but all over the country. That, however, is exactly what 14 states are doing. This past fall, they formed a common front: Air-quality regulators from the 14 states jointly endorsed stopgap plans to enforce stringent new diesel standards for trucks sold within their jurisdictions. Those states represent 40 percent of the diesel truck market, and state officials say cooperative action will be essential to maintain a nationwide policy and keep dirty running vehicles off the highways nationwide.

In doing so, the states are stepping into a breach left open by federal regulatory wrangling. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been working to set national standards to bring toxic diesel emissions under control, and the Clinton administration won court settlements fining engine manufacturers $1 billion for installing "defeat devices" that turned pollution controls off on big trucks rolling down the open highway. When the legal dust settled, however, the convoluted process had created a two-year gap, in 2005 and 2006, when tighter diesel standards will be effectively suspended. During that time, truck builders would be free to install dirtier motors, which could be on the road for 15 to 20 years.

Emissions from those trucks would make things all the more difficult for state and local governments to improve air quality, especially in traffic-choked, bad-air cities. To head off the consequences, California's Air Resources Board is imposing tight diesel standards; Northeastern states plan to follow suit by embracing California's stringent regulation. That's no surprise, since the federal law authorizes California to set its own ambitious air-quality goals, and New England and Mid-Atlantic states have long been cooperating on smog-control measures. What's more surprising, however, is that Nevada, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia have joined the campaign, recognizing that they'll need all the help they can get to bring Houston, Atlanta and other fast-growing metropolitan areas into compliance with Clean Air Act standards.

"Texas will work with other states when it's to our mutual benefit," says Ralph Marquez, a state natural resources commissioner. Leaders of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Control Administrators, the group representing state air-quality regulators that coordinated the initiative, predict that another 15 or so states may jump aboard.

Politically, the issue's a winner: Efforts to control motor vehicle pollution up to now have focused on passenger cars. For instance, motorists are required to take their own vehicles in for time- consuming emission inspections. Meanwhile, regulators have moved slowly to regulate big diesels. "People have been complaining forever about getting stuck behind a smoking truck. That really makes it a fairness issue," says Richard Valentinetti, the Vermont air pollution control director.

State officials blame the truck engine makers, not EPA, for the problem. Nonetheless, by some reports, outgoing EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner wasn't pleased to see states get credit for picking up the slack created by the agency's regulation-setting misadventures.

The fact is that federal environmental policy has too often bogged down in partisan strife, interest-group pressure and legal maneuvering. At the federal level, industry, environmentalists, labor and other organizations have all accumulated enough lobbying power and legal prowess to obstruct meaningful environmental compromise. The indecision is likely to get worse now that Congress is so evenly divided and presidential authority imperiled by the controversial 2000 election. On some matters, state pollution-control agencies are already more able and willing to act than the federal officials who have spent the past 25 years second-guessing state and local decisions. EPA efforts to negotiate a rule covering emissions from paint have foundered, for instance, so the state air-quality regulators have drafted a model rule for states to consider if they want to set more effective standards.

To implement pollution rules, "you need some national guide or template to look at, but it doesn't have to come from EPA," Valentinetti says. Of course, states will have a tough time devising common strategies on ozone transport, farmland runoff and similar cross-border pollution issues where their economic and environmental interests are in conflict. Diesels make an easier target, but the crackdown on dirty trucks suggests that states can be counted on to step in when that's necessary.

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