The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has a tremendous opportunity on Thursday to eliminate much of the smog and soot spewed by heavy construction and other “off-road” equipment. The off-road rule, under development for roughly three years, will cleanup several hundred thousand of the dirtiest pieces of equipment used in construction, at airports and in mines statewide.
Construction equipment is the second largest source of diesel pollution in California. The new rule will provide more diesel soot reductions and health benefits than all seven of the in-use diesel fleet rules that the air board already has passed. Not only will this rule clear away the toxic diesel soot clouds surrounding construction sites – helping nearby residents and workers breathe a little easier – it also is a critical step towards meeting national air quality standards. A strong rule is especially important in smog-choked Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley.
Smog and soot from diesel equipment takes a serious toll on human health. Diesel exhaust is a mixture of toxic chemicals, carcinogens, and tiny particles that lodge deep within the lungs. The health rap sheet for diesel exhaust is long. It includes impaired lung function, aggravated respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis, emphysema and asthma, increased hospital admissions for cardiac and respiratory illnesses, and even premature death. In fact, it’s estimated that 4,000 premature deaths would be averted by the rule CARB is about to consider. The savings in health costs are estimated at $18 to $26 billion — yes billion — as compared to a cost to industry of $3.5 billion for cleaner equipment.
As a result of countless concessions to industry, this rule is affordable, feasible and flexible. It includes compliance choices such as exhaust control retrofits, engine upgrades, incentive funding, opportunities to lease equipment, and a gradual phase-in over more than ten years. Public funding for exhaust controls, engine upgrades and new equipment has been available for years through the statewide Carl Moyer incentive program and other local funds. Such assistance will continue to be available for some time to small businesses to help defray the costs of meeting this rule, as long as these businesses act in a timely manner.
As different rules governing clean construction pop up all over California – San Francisco, Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley already have their own rules – this statewide rule is an important step to guarantee health benefits and provide consistency for business. We know that at least 9,000 people die in California each year due to air pollution. That’s why scores of public health, environmental and medical experts have spoken out in support of this rule.
California businesses must realize that clean air isn’t just good for people, it’s good for our economy. We are hopeful that, as the new CARB chairwoman, Mary Nichols will lead the board to adopt the strongest, most health-protective rule possible.
Diane Bailey is an engineer in NRDC’s health program whose work focuses on reducing exposure to diesel exhaust and other air pollutants. Before joining NRDC, Diane worked at Citizens for a Better Environment and a local transportation planning agency in Houston. She holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Washington University and a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Rice University.