Monday, April 25, 2005

How diesel engine companies celebrated Earth Day

By going to court to try to block California state diesel emission rules! (See below.)

There is a broader story here: the apparent failure of a 1998 federal (and California) agreement with the diesel engine companies -- an agreement aimed at ending a decade of cheating by the companies. The result is that diesel trucks on the road today are polluting more than they were supposed to.

Diesel engine companies challenge emission rules on Earth Day

DON THOMPSONAssociated Press

SACRAMENTO - Diesel engine manufacturers went to court Friday seeking to block stricter pollution standards set to take effect in one week, arguing that state regulators reneged on a $1 billion 1998 legal settlement.

The California Air Resources Board says the pollution standards it adopted in December are needed because a voluntary program promoted by manufacturers wasn't working.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Loren McMaster, in a tentative ruling before he heard arguments, denied manufacturers' request that the initial April 30 compliance deadline be delayed while their lawsuit proceeds. He did not immediately issue a final order after Friday's hearing.

The outcome has national implications because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency struggles with the same enforcement problem.

The ARB's regulations require owners of trucks with diesel engines to remove so-called "smog defeat" timing devices that allow the engines to meet pollution requirements when trucks are inspected but exceed the limits when trucks travel at highway speeds.

The regulations apply to an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 vehicles licensed in other states that drive through California, as well as 58,000 California-licensed trucks.

The air board says removing the devices from California-registered trucks alone would trim air pollution the same amount as removing 1 million cars from California highways. Clean air advocates hope the regulations, if they stand, will spread nationwide.

The debate sharpened beyond the courtroom as air board Executive Officer Catherine Witherspoon accused manufacturers of endangering lives and costing California millions of dollars by not quickly replacing the devices on nearly a million trucks, buses and recreational vehicles built between 1993 and 1998. She criticized the manufacturers for insisting their customers, the diesel trucks' owners, pay for removing the devices.

But Caterpillar Inc., Cummins Inc., Mack Trucks Inc. and Volvo Powertrain Corp. said they've already paid the state $37 million in civil penalties and other costs. Recalling the trucks simply to replace the devices would cost truck owners millions of dollars in downtime costs for the replacement and new inspections if they comply, and $300-$800 in penalties for each truck if they don't, the companies said.

The ARB regulations require that the devices be removed starting April 30 on a phased-in schedule based on model years. An estimated 35,000 to 45,000 heavy-duty trucks are required to replace the devices by year's end, while medium-duty trucks must be retrofitted by the end of next year.

The 1998 settlement required manufacturers to replace the defeat devices only when the heavy-duty engines needed major overhauls, which happens far less frequently than regulators had expected.

A year ago, the ARB agreed to a voluntary plan for the industry to reach 35 percent compliance by last November and 100 percent compliance by 2008. But the board said only about 18 percent of the California-licensed vehicles had the upgrades by November, so it adopted the mandatory regulations.

McMaster tentatively ruled he has no authority to override a legitimate government regulation, no matter if it violates a settlement.

Caterpillar attorney Gilbert Keteltas, arguing for all the manufacturers, said the air board gave up its regulatory right under the settlement.

Deputy Attorney General William Brieger, arguing for the air board, said the agreement was with manufacturers, while the regulations are on diesel truck owners.

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