California air regulators took steps Thursday to delay the nation's toughest rules to slash emissions from diesel-powered construction equipment, saying the poor economy has left many of the vehicles sitting idle.
Members of the California Air Resources Board said they want to give companies more time to comply because construction activity in the state is down about 50 percent since the regulations were adopted three years ago, and that has significantly reduced harmful emissions.
"Unfavorable economic times make it more difficult for industry to comply with our regulations and function," board chairwoman Mary Nichols said.
The regulations, referred to as off-highway diesel rules, were scheduled to take effect this year, and some companies have already spent millions of dollars on new equipment to comply.
No formal vote was taken Thursday, but the board directed its staff to determine ways the construction industry can more easily reach the state's goal of cutting diesel emissions by 2014, the date required to meet federal clean air standards.
Thursday's debate comes four months after the board decided to explore loosening similar diesel rules for trucks and buses.
Any new guidelines for trucks and construction equipment were expected to be put to a vote in September.
While the economy was the driving reason for reviewing both rules, board staff reported Thursday they had overestimated how much pollution construction equipment, buses and trucks emit into the air.
For example, there are about 200,000 fewer construction vehicles in California than the board had initially thought, and the industry didn't use as much diesel as expected. So, the regulation assumed there were 50 to 80 percent more emissions that needed to be cut, according to board staff.
The revelation drew criticism from a few of the board members and industry groups who called for better numbers before imposing costly regulations.
"Until they are right, you're asking us to spend billions of dollars to reduce phantom emissions, and we're not going to do that," said Michael Lewis of the Construction Industry Air Quality Coalition, which is based in Southern California.
Industry representatives urged the board to delay the regulations by five years, citing the much lower emissions footprint of construction.
The off-highway diesel rules passed in 2007 require tractors, forklifts, bulldozers and other types of diesel-powered equipment to be replaced or retrofitted over the next 15 years. Large fleets have until 2020, while fleets with fewer than 20 vehicles have until 2025.
Firms with large fleets were supposed to start replacing and retrofitting vehicles beginning March 1, but California is waiting for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to grant the state a waiver from federal regulations under the federal Clean Air Act. The California rules can't be enforced without the waiver.
Meanwhile, the truck and bus rule is scheduled to begin taking effect in January 2011. Nearly a million vehicles must be replaced or retrofitted over the next 10 years with smog traps, filters or cleaner-burning technology.
The construction and truck regulations were adopted to help clean the state's skies by targeting particulate matter and nitrogen oxide — pollutants blamed for contributing to respiratory ailments, cardiovascular problems and premature deaths.
Southern California air district officials warned that any delay in the regulations would leave toxic chemicals lingering in their region.
"We must reduce residential exposure to emissions as quickly as possible," said Henry Hog of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "We must also be cognizant, at some point, the economy will pick up and economic activities will be the same or greater in the future."
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