A Health Investment with a Billion Plus Payback

By Chris Hagerbaumer of Portland, Oregon. Chris is the Director of Programs at the Oregon Environmental Council.

Imagine driving the entire length of I-5 in a tractor-trailer truck, a “big rig.” Then imagine an hour of operating a bulldozer at a construction site. Guess what? The two emit the same amount of pollution. That’s right: each hour of bulldozer use is the equivalent of driving I-5 from Canada to Mexico in a newer model big rig.

More precisely, they emit the same amount of particulate matter, the primary component of soot and a contributor to the four leading causes of death in Oregon (pdf) – heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory disease. Diesel exhaust is one of the most dangerous pollutants in our air and a leading environmental health hazard not just in Portland, but across Oregon, with diesel particulate matter exceeding the state’s health benchmarks in 25 of Oregon’s 36 counties.

Ironically, part of the challenge of cleaning up diesel soot is that diesel engines are durable and well-built. The average engine used on a construction site may be 15 years old, with many even older. Diesel engines’ longevity and efficiency are very positive attributes. But these older engines were built when pollution standards were lax or non-existent, an issue that must be addressed to protect public health.

Idling less and burning cleaner fuels, like biodiesel and ultra-low sulfur diesel, are important steps that equipment operators can take immediately. But ultimately we need to fix the engines themselves by retrofitting them with emissions-cleaning devices (pdf), such as particulate filters or oxidation catalysts.

If we took action to retrofit older, polluting construction engines, our actions would pay for themselves in less than nine months. While the upfront cost of converting one engine runs about $8,000, the benefits from a single engine conversion total almost $13,000 each year in reduced health and environmental costs. Cleaning up Oregon’s off-road diesel engines would provide nearly $1.3 billion in benefits to the health of Oregon’s citizens and environment.

In 2007, the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC) helped lobby successfully (along with the Associated General Contractors, Oregon Trucking Association, and Oregon Farm Bureau, among others) for a state fund that provides financial assistance (pdf) to businesses that retrofit, rebuild or replace their older diesel engines. And OEC recently brought this important issue to the attention of the Sustainable Development Commission, which has asked the City of Portland, Multnomah County and the Portland Development Commission to adopt contracting requirements to reduce diesel emissions in publicly financed construction projects. This should be quite cost effective for all involved – California estimates the costs of its planned construction equipment upgrades at less than half of one percent of overall construction costs (pdf).

Our federal government has an important role to play too. Although the President’s proposed budget for FY 2009 includes funding for the National Clean Diesel Campaign, the budget resolution passed by the House of Representatives includes no mention of this important, cost-effective grant program.

We have a responsibility to provide a cleaner future for us and our children, reducing Oregon’s cancer risk, asthma rates, and premature deaths. Cleaning up diesel exhaust will also give us clearer views of our beautiful Cascade Range, mountains that remind us of why we live in one of the nation’s most beautiful, environmentally responsible states.

  • MCT (unverified)

    Sounds like the kind of great thinking we will be needing to aim for from this time forward. I hear a lot about smart growth and green building; makes sense to me the tools we use to create a sustainable future should fit with the concept.

    I hope, with a new administration in DC, we will be continually encouraged to start imagining ways we can live cleaner and walk lightly on the planet.

    Of course you do know that at some point we will have to eliminate the hoggy tools altogether, but in the mean time this would be a way to improve without putting companies out of business, and would create jobs as well.

  • Gary Miner (unverified)

    As the owner of a "big rig" that runs up and down I-5 your comparison of particulate emissions was interesting. If I were a younger man I would probably buy a newer truck but fuel prices and CARB are scaring me to no end so I think I will quit at the end of 2009. I have followed the discussion of biodiesel for several years and will continue to do so.

    Regards Gary

  • Kevin Downing (unverified)

    While we think of over the road trucks as being the most visible source of diesel emissions, at least that sector of diesel has taken pretty big strides in terms of reducing emissions, particularly compared to nonroad engines like construction, logging and agricultural equipment. EPA estimated the overall benefit from cleaning up nonroad engines (beginning in 2010) to be half again as much greater than from their 2007 truck emission standards. Remarkably, that benefit comes from a much smaller universe of vehicles. In Oregon there may be close to 400,000 diesel trucks and buses in a year's time compared to about 75,000 nonroad diesels. The whole clean diesel iniative is about not just waiting for folks to buy the new equipment but to cost effectively do something now, with tremendous health and environmental benefits.

    Kevin Downing Oregon DEQ Clean Diesel Initiative

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