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Diesel grants fill void left by state cuts

Dustin Block
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Stimulus money to reduce diesel-engine pollution from construction equipment might not be enough to offset state budget cuts to a similar program.

Wisconsin expects to receive $1.7 million in stimulus money this spring to upgrade old diesel engines, said Brett Hulsey, supervisor on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. But Gov. Jim Doyle cut $2 million out of his 2009-11 budget for a Wisconsin Department of Commerce program designed to cut the amount of time diesel engines idle, Hulsey said.

The net effect might be less money to control pollution from diesel engines, he said.

But the commitment is still there to cut diesel pollution, said Tom Walker, director of government affairs for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association. The state program, he said, was a way to more quickly reach the goal, and the cuts to the program only make the federal money that much more essential.

The money is available through the federal Diesel Emissions Reduction Act passed in 2007. Under the Bush administration, the federal government allocated $49 million to the Environmental Protection Agency program. The stimulus plan made $300 million available for diesel retrofits, which can include replacing engines or adding filters to existing engines.

The EPA grants pay 100 percent of the cost of buying and installing filters — essentially catalytic converters — on existing engines. Construction equipment is targeted because it lasts so long that some engines use outdated technology that pollutes, Walker said.

The program also covers 100 percent of the cost of idle-reduction technologies, 75 percent of the cost of new engines and 25 percent of the cost of new vehicles. The grants favor retrofits because they’re cheaper and offer a more efficient way to reduce harmful emissions, Walker said.

The filters are considered the best short-term solution, Hulsey said. They cost about $5,000 to install and can reduce particulate matter by 20 percent, he said.

That’s a significant amount for Dane County, which is close to violating federal clean-air standards, and Milwaukee County, which already exceeds standards for particulate matter.

The Associated General Contractors of America is promoting the EPA grants to its membership at the organization’s annual meeting in San Diego this week. Mike Fabishak, chief executive of the AGC of Greater Milwaukee, said the diesel retrofit money is an easily understandable program amid a stimulus package full of uncertainty.

“This is clear, it’s 100 percent, and it addresses a problem in the industry,” he said. “The smart contractors are going to take advantage of this and apply for this.”

Small companies with old equipment — some pieces run for 50 years and a million miles — are likely to benefit from the grants, Hulsey said.

The Boldt Co., one of Wisconsin’s largest contractors, likely will not apply for diesel retrofit grants, said Greg Reitzner, director of field support service for the Appleton-based company. Boldt regularly upgrades its equipment and does not need to retrofit any of its diesel engines, he said.

Yet for many companies, old diesel engines eventually will be replaced with newer equipment, Walker said.

But that could take decades, and, especially in a recession, companies aren’t spending money on new trucks.

That leaves grants for retrofits as the best short-term solution to improve air quality, he said.

“This will eventually take care of itself,” Walker said. “But we can’t wait for that to occur. This gives us a way to make interim progress.”

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