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Associated General Contractors of America fuming about exhaust rules

Justin Carinci
Dolan Media Newswires

Portland, OR — New diesel emissions rules could hit California contractors starting next year, and a national contractors group wants to stop those rules from sweeping the whole country.

The rules would limit exhaust from off-road vehicles — including construction equipment — already in use, not just new vehicles. That has drawn the fire, and lobbying muscle, of the Associated General Contractors of America.

“Think if what California is proposing applied to (passenger) vehicles,” AGC spokesman Brian Turmail said.

“If you bought a ’99 Honda Civic and they said you met all the standards, but now you have to pay a couple thousand dollars because we don’t like those standards anymore.”

The fight isn’t just over diesel vehicles in California. The state has special status under the federal Clean Air Act that allows it to set stricter emissions limits than the federal government, as long as the Environmental Protection Agency signs off on those limits.

Once that happens, any state may adopt California’s rules.

Oregon adopted California’s limits on exhaust emissions by passenger vehicles, Turmail said, and is likely to do so with off-road diesel vehicles.

Oregon “is familiar with the ‘opt-in’ process and very comfortable following California’s lead,” he said.

If those sound like fighting words, it’s because Turmail’s aim is to stir up opposition to the California rules.

Just because Oregon could opt into California’s requirements, doesn’t mean it will, said Kevin Downing with the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Clean Diesel Initiative. On the other hand, the fear of those requirements being adopted can help motivate people to make changes before they’re forced to.

California’s rules would require expensive, high-end retrofits for existing vehicles, said Steve Hoke, one of the owner’s of Portland’s Diesel Emissions Service Northwest. Vehicles built before 1994 can’t even accept those retrofits and can’t be used once the requirements take effect.

“Oregon is much smarter,” Hoke said. “They say, ‘let’s put a $1,500 to $1,800 retrofit and have a 40-percent reduction,” he said. “Whereas California says, ‘Tough. That’s on you. Get rid of it.’ ”

Downing said the percentage reduction in emissions is smaller, 20 to 25 percent, for the cheapest retrofits.

But depending on how hot an engine runs, and how hard it runs, the cheapest emissions control might be the best.

And even a small reduction, percentage-wise, removes a lot of pollutants from the air, Downing said. “On the older engines, a 20-percent cut is still a lot.”

While the EPA has not granted California the waiver it needs to enforce its off-road diesel rule, the state has bent slightly under pressures of the recession. Companies with smaller fleets will have a year or two longer, until 2013, to comply with the rule under an amendment passed last month.

Downing would like a wide range of voluntary methods to result in Oregon’s diesel engines polluting less.

Some companies will pay for a cleaner or retrofitted engine because they work in a sensitive environment, such as a hospital, Downing said, and a few will do so out of a commitment to the environment, but many more will not take any action until it’s required.

But the large group in the middle can be moved to make changes with financial incentives and the thought of requirements on the horizon, Downing said. “(For) some businesses, it’s all they can do to make payroll.

They see why it’s a good thing, but it’s not at the top of their to-do list.

“It may take some larger regulatory signals,” he said. “Say, by a certain date in the future, we could expect to see something like this happen.”

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