It’s California’s dirty little emissions secret.
As Gov. Jerry Brown and the mayors of Los Angeles and Long Beach promise an emissions-free future, some diesel fumes aren’t going anywhere.
That’s because, unlike your car, there’s no routine emissions-testing program for big rigs in California.
And a provision in Senate Bill 1 — the $52 billion road-fixing law Brown signed amid much ballyhoo in the spring — exempts most diesel trucks from emissions-reduction requirements for many years ahead.
Instead, the state will continue to rely on random inspections at weigh stations on the side of the road and at border crossings.
Brown has become an international icon for climate-change reform. And the ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles vowed last week to spend billions on cleaner-burning gear and vehicles.
Still, it’s hard to imagine California truly clearing its air with the diesel-emissions pothole in its path. The state’s 1 million diesel trucks account for 2.3 percent of the vehicles on the road — but 56 percent of the smog-forming nitrogen oxides from motor vehicles and 66 percent of the diesel soot.
The cocktail of pollutants that flow from diesel engines contains both gases and solids. But the tiny solid bits — aka diesel particulate matter — are particularly risky. They hover in the air and can get lodged in human lungs. Studies have linked diesel particulate matter to asthma, decreased lung function in children and cancer.
The risk is particularly high among people who live along Southern California’s cargo corridor — from the twin ports to the warehouses and deployment centers of the Inland Empire — and all those households that line the freeways in between.
The California Trucking Association, the state’s most powerful lobbying group for the industry, blames the problem on a small group of truckers.
Chris Shimoda, an executive for the association, pointed to the state’s air board own findings that indicate “10 percent of trucks are responsible for 56 percent of total truck emissions.”
The diesel dilemma
Diesel engines are a favorite of big-rig operators. Cheaper to run than gasoline, they are arguably the backbone of American commerce. In California, about 80 percent of all communities rely on trucks to deliver their food, household goods and other basics of survival.
Truth be told, California’s diesel fleet has cleaned up over recent years, with new rules requiring operators to install the latest pollution-control equipment.
But environmental activists, air regulators and others don’t think it’s enough.
They worry about people like Catherine Parker, whose two-bedroom apartment sits a few blocks from the 710 Freeway, where on any given morning you can see long lines of trucks headed to the ports.
Parker and her children share 12 different inhalers to treat asthma that doctors say is worsened by pollution. Her son can’t go to baseball practice without one. Exercise can leave her breathless.
She scatters inhalers around her nightstand to make sure they’re within reach.
Parker says she has visited the emergency room four times for her children’s asthma in the past year.
“We are at the doctor’s office a lot,” she said. “I don’t sleep when my kids’ asthma starts acting up.”
Not far from Parker’s apartment, thousands of big rigs, ships, forklifts and other equipment belt out diesel soot daily.
But those pollutants also unspool along rail yards and the freeway arteries that lead to its gates and stretch to communities inland. In those zones, among the state’s highest levels of diesel particulate matter are recorded.
Exposure to exhaust has been linked by medical researchers to higher rates of asthma, respiratory problems and hospitalization. And children growing up in heavily polluted areas can experience stunted lung function and development, said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior director of air quality at the American Lung Association in California.
In California, the number of particulate matter-related premature deaths from all sources stands at 7,300 per year, adding up to about $65 billion in costs, she said.
Diesel emissions are responsible for a significant chunk of these early deaths, she said.
“The health impacts of diesel soot are so severe,” Holmes-Gen said. “We need every available tool to cut diesel emissions and transition to cleaner, healthier technologies.”
Regular truck-emissions tests, for now, won’t be one of those tools.
To be fair, some testing for big vehicles does indeed exist in the state.
Trucks and buses can be pulled over to check for smoke at border crossings, along the road and at weigh stations.
And fleet operators must self-report to the state their compliance with emissions standards.
State law requires that by 2023, heavy-duty trucks must meet 2010 emission standards. The state’s fleet already is beginning to comply.
Meanwhile, the air board is looking at ways to eventually implement a more stringent emissions-inspection system. Until then, regulators rely on a visual inspection of the smoke emitted from a truck’s stack. They look for diesel soot.
Think you can spy a polluter in the next lane? Sorry, smoke — or the lack thereof — isn’t always a foolproof indicator of whether new anti-emissions systems are working.
Smoke-free trucks can emit the smog-forming chemical nitrogen oxide or carbon dioxide without any clear visual evidence.
Kim A. Heroy-Rogalski, a manager at the California Air Resources Board in charge of developing rules to clean up heavy-duty trucks, puts it more bluntly.
“California’s current smoke-inspection requirements are inadequate to ensure that proper maintenance occurs,” she said. “Instead, a comprehensive heavy-duty inspection and maintenance program is needed.”
On the shore
“The truck loophole in SB 1 was a huge disappointment,” Holmes-Gen said, “and we are still sorting through the impacts.”
She won’t have to look far. Just last week, the nation’s largest port complex embraced greener-fuel strategies that could top $14 billion — yet officials said they would have to scale back their earlier goals for a clean-air program because of SB 1.
That’s likely to slow down anti-pollution efforts just where it’s needed most — the largest single source of pollutants in Southern California.
About 16,000 trucks are registered to pick up containers from the mammoth port complex. About half of those have older engines that don’t meet recent federal emission standards that dramatically cut the amount of diesel particulate matter released.
Under those guidelines, a 2010 or later model heavy-duty truck is expected to produce about 90 percent less smog-forming pollutants and particulate matter than those built around 2006 or earlier.
Port officials say they won’t be able to apply those standards because their hands were tied by SB 1’s compromise.
“Without the state moving forward on new requirements, we are not in a position to accelerate what they have done,” Heather Tomley, director of environmental planning at Long Beach’s port, said last week.
Regulators at California’s Air Resources Board disagree.
“Nothing in SB 1 precludes ports from taking action to protect their communities from toxic pollution,” a statement from the board said.
SB 1 isn’t the only complication confronting the ports’ clean-air plan. The Teamsters union, which has been leading a drive to organize independent truckers, has worried aloud about the cost of deploying a new, cleaner-burning fleet.
“We want the cleanest air possible for people who live and work in the harbor,” said spokeswoman Barb Maynar, “but the drivers shouldn’t have to pay for it.”
Change on horizon?
California Sen. Connie Leyva. D-Chino, who says she remembers the frequently smog-steeped skies of her Inland Empire childhood, introduced legislation earlier this year that would do away with the visual opacity tests.
Her bill would create a program more akin to a smog-testing cycle like the program most of the state’s vehicle owners are required to complete to keep their cars on the road.
But she tabled the proposal for now — and her office wouldn’t comment further on it, other than to point to a statement she released back in April explaining why she supported SB 1.
At the time, she said she was given commitments from Senate leadership and the Brown administration that they would work with her “to protect California’s air quality from mobile source emissions.”
Parker said she — and her asthma-troubled kids — look forward to that day.
“I would love to have fresh air,” she said. “My family is from Mississippi and you can see the air difference. My son says it smells better. ”