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Citizens Union


Diminishing The Danger From Diesel Exhaust

Take a deep breath in New York City, and chances are you are filling your lungs with particles of pollution from the tailpipe of a diesel truck.

Tailpipe pollution is the biggest local threat to the city’s air quality – over 80 percent of the cancer risk from air pollution in New York City comes from a transportation-related source. Diesel exhaust is especially dangerous, spewing a toxic stew of more than 40 cancer-causing compounds into the air. New Yorkers suffer from some of the highest asthma rates in the country (up to 25 percent of school age children in some neighborhoods in Harlem have been diagnosed with asthma), and diesel pollution is a well-known asthma trigger.

New York is not alone in struggling with this challenge. Across the country, about 170 million Americans – half the U.S. population – live in places that fail to meet the federal Environmental Protection Agency's basic healthy air standards for smog and soot.

The good news is that cost-effective solutions exist that can cut sources of air pollution substantially. New York has already begun to adopt some of those solutions, but there is a great deal more that government agencies, business leaders and even citizens can do.

There are three basic ways that New York City can cut pollution from the many truck and other diesel engines that flood the city with bad air.

1. Cleaner Fuels, New Parts For Old Trucks

Diesel engines live long lives. Some, like those used in construction and commercial marine vessels are used for decades and emit more soot pollution than cars and trucks combined. School buses present a special challenge, with kids inside exposed to unusually high levels of soot pollution.

But pollution from these old engines can be substantially cut in two ways -- the installation of new parts, such as filters, which are called retrofits; and the use of the cleanest grade of diesel fuel.

Right now, the cleanest grade of diesel (ultra-low sulfur diesel, with a sulfur content of 15 parts per million, or ppm, compared to regular diesel with a sulfur content of 500 to 3000 parts per million), is available in the New York market ahead of much of the rest of the country. Tailpipe retrofits, the best of which require use of the cleanest fuel, can cost only a few thousand dollars -- a small fraction of the cost of a large construction vehicle.

New York has begun to take steps to adopt these technologies. Last year, New York City became the first major city in the U.S. to enact legislation (in pdf format) requiring all companies that receive city contracts for public construction projects to use ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel and "best available" retrofits. The city can use its purchasing power to help bring these technologies to this market at the best price.

There is legislation before the city council now that would expand this commitment to all city fleets, from sanitation trucks to school buses. If enacted, that legislation would make New York a national leader in cutting diesel pollution. Every major construction site and every diesel fleet in the public and private sectors should make the same commitment.

2. Clean New Vehicles

The Environmental Protection Agency has set standards that will require new diesel engines to be much cleaner. Yet, many diesel engines stay in use for decades and won't be replaced by vehicles with cleaner engines for many years. The EPA estimates that the full health benefits of its new standards will not be fully realized until the year 2030. A child born today might not be breathing the cleaner air until after she finishes graduate school.

Another council bill would, if enacted and signed by the mayor, commit New York public fleets to buy the cleanest possible vehicle available for its intended use. That means speeding the transition to the most fuel-efficient vehicles available, including hybrids and alternative fuels like compressed natural gas or, over time, hydrogen.

Private fleets can make a big difference too. Last year, FedEx introduced into New York City a new generation of hybrid delivery trucks, developed in partnership with Environmental Defense (the national non-profit environmental organization where I am New York regional director). The ten trucks travel 57 percent farther on a gallon of fuel and emit 96 percent less soot than a regular FedEx delivery truck. We believe that every fleet can begin now to take advantage of cleaner vehicle technologies.

3. Incentives and Investment To Cut Truck Traffic

Clean technologies are great, but they are not always enough. The number of trucks on our streets is growing dramatically. In fact, the transportation sector is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases in New York, and the miles these trucks travel are projected to increase substantially over time. Every year, for example, the trucks that pick up our garbage travel about eight million miles a year (300 times around the earth!) on Manhattan streets alone.

A recent report entitled Investing In Mobility (in pdf format) shows how, by shifting the majority of waste transport to barge and rail, truck traffic can be cut in half. The mayor’s new solid waste policy takes important steps in this direction. But for waterfront neighborhoods to accept the necessary infrastructure to transfer garbage onto barges, basic ideas about how to design municipal facilities must change. Attractive facilities can be built that eliminate queuing, get trucks off city streets and cut diesel pollution.

It is time also to look creatively at using incentives to cut traffic in our neighborhoods. London adopted a remarkable congestion-pricing plan that has cut traffic congestion in its downtown core by about 30 percent. Hudson River crossings in New York City have shaved peak travel volumes by about seven percent with a modest congestion pricing plan. San Diego is using pricing to help pay for new forms of transit, like bus rapid transit, that are flexible and cost-effective. These incentives work just like off-peak phone discounts – travel is cheaper at off-peak times. New technologies make it possible to introduce these pricing incentives here without tollbooths and in ways that are suited to local business needs.

In short, New York City needs a comprehensive plan to attack pollution from tailpipes. Both the public and private sectors can help expand the market for the cleanest possible technologies. Infrastructure can be built to minimize dependence on trucks and maximize incentives to make clean transport choices. By making these choices, the city can meet minimal clean air standards and allow New Yorkers to breathe easy.

Andy Darrell is the New York regional director of Environmental Defense

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