You see them every time you pass a construction site: big machines belching thick diesel smoke. The smoke isn’t just annoying. It causes major health and environmental problems. Now, after years of dealing with other issues, the EPA is taking on this major source of uncontrolled pollution: emissions from farm and construction equipment. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Halpert looks at the challenges the EPA faces in this far-reaching regulatory effort:
You see them every time you pass a construction site. Big machines belching thick diesel smoke. The smoke isn’t just annoying. It causes major health and environmental problems. Now, after years of dealing with other issues, the EPA is taking on this major source of uncontrolled pollution: emissions from farm and construction equipment. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Halpert looks at the challenges EPA faces in this far-reaching regulatory effort.
Emissions from diesel engines create problems for both the environment and people’s health. Diesels release nitrogen oxides, which are a factor in acid rain and smog. They also spew very fine particulates that can lodge deep in the lung when inhaled. And that causes respiratory problems.
Controlling these emissions is no easy task. That’s because most diesel engines still burn fuel containing high amounts of sulfur. The sulfur clogs up existing pollution control devices. And that makes it a lot tougher to come up with ways to reduce emissions. But Christopher Grundler, deputy director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says its an important challenge.
“In the year 2007 we estimate that off road or non-road emissions will make up over 40% of the air pollution from mobile sources or transportation sources, so it’s a big deal.”
In tackling air pollution, EPA’s first job was to clean up gasoline car emissions. Now its moving onto diesels. The agency’s first challenge came when they issued a rule for highway trucks last year. That plan drops sulfur content in diesel fuel from 500 parts per million to 15 parts per million. It also reduces overall diesel emissions by 90% by the year 2007. The EPA now wants to use this rule as a model for farm and construction equipment as well. But the agency is likely to face opposition from refiners, who are fighting the on road rule. Jim Williams is with the American Petroleum Institute.
“We feel that the ability of the refining industry to make sufficient volumes of 15 ppm in the timeframe that EPA wants us to is highly questionable, whether we can do that. We’ve done some studies that show there will be supply shortfalls with the 15-ppm limit.”
Williams is pushing to phase in the requirement over a longer period. He says that would give refiners more time to produce the necessary quantities of low sulfur fuel. Until then, refiners also want to continue providing high sulfur fuel.
But Engine Manufacturers don’t like that idea. They’ve agreed to support tough standards only if the switchover to low sulfur fuel happens quickly. Jed Mandel runs the Engine Manufacturers Association. He’s worried that if cheaper, low sulfur fuel remains abundant; users could continue relying on the dirtier fuel.
“If there are dual fuels available — if there’s cleaner fuel on the marketplace for some time, as well as higher sulfur dirtier fuel, and there’s a price differential in that fuel, there will be a disincentive for users to buy the cleanest engines.”
Mandel says that could cause a delay in purchasing these engines for several years.
Like Mandel, Jason Grumet, executive director of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, also wants tight standards. Northeast states, plagued with acid rain and smog caused largely by these diesels, are pushing the EPA to develop the tightest standards possible to meet clean air goals and also to better protect equipment operators.
“The particles from diesel emissions can lodge very deep within the human lung and we know that these particles are carcinogens, so for folks who work with construction equipment every day or on construction sites, for people who farm or plow fields for several hours a day, we think that the emissions of diesel pollutants cause a very substantial and real threat to their health.”
(sound of tractor)
Herb Smith isn’t worried about his health. Smith hops off his tractor and stands on the land that his family has farmed in Ida Township, Michigan since 1865. Despite years of inhaling diesel fumes, Smith said he’s in perfect physical condition. Though he supports regulations to control diesel emissions, he’s worried that the EPA will place undue hardship on farmers.
“I am concerned about fuel costs because our margin in farming is very slim and anything we add to fuel costs, we have to absorb it.”
Smith fears that some of the smaller farmers may not be able to bear higher fuel and engine costs and could go out of business.
Despite the many different viewpoints on the issue, EPA’s Grundler is confident that his agency can develop a rule that will bring tremendous public health benefits at a reasonable cost.
“We’ve shown we can do it for cars and SUVs. We’ve shown it can be done for heavy duty on highway engines. I’m absolutely certain it can be done for these sorts of engines as well.”
The agency expects to issue a technical report outlining emission control options by the end of the year. A proposal is due by the middle of next year. For The Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Julie Halpert.