By Don MacGillivray

Diesel exhaust has been an issue in Portland for many years. Recently the central city has more than thirty large buildings under construction at one time and a large number of diesel powered vehicles are in use without adequate exhaust control. Air pollution from diesel exhaust is known to be a toxic carcinogen.

In 2007 vehicle emissions improved greatly so it is only trucks and vehicles built before this date that are an issue. Unfortunately there are over 7,000 of these unregulated older vehicles in use today. Oregon has the sixth highest health risk in the nation due to diesel pollution.

This fact might have gone unreported if it weren’t for Linda George, a Portland State University professor, who has a lab in her car with equipment able to record the level of pollution at specific locations. Her findings are higher than the governmental computer models that are above the accepted standards nearly everywhere she tests for air quality.

Around construction sites, the level of pollution is often 100 times the acceptable level. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that diesel pollution causes 460 premature deaths per year in Oregon and this costs the people of Oregon $3.5 billion a year in health costs and lost productivity. Pollution levels are often two or three times worse in low income, minority communities near freeways and industrial areas where children are often at risk.

According to government sources, less than 10 percent of air pollution is created by industry. The number one source is from cars and trucks. Still, Oregon’s air quality standards have met federal guidelines for more than twenty years. As Oregon grows, especially here in Portland, air quality is likely to decline unless action is taken.

Diesel pollution is made up of more than forty hazardous materials that can cause severe damage and health risks. These are many of the same pollutants that contribute to climate change. The air toxics of greatest concern in Portland are: diesel soot, benzene, hydrocarbons and lead.

There are numerous sources of air toxics, but by far the largest source is vehicle emissions especially trucks and heavy equipment. There are no federal standards for these types of pollution. Work is being done to reduce air toxics, but the growth in population and necessary increases in construction are likely to intensify the problems.

Solutions are dependent on the actions of government and businesses. In 2015, Oregon passed a Clean Fuels Program that guaranteed 7 million tons of carbon would stay out of our air. This is the equivalent to 37,500 rail cars full of coal. This happened in spite of a $2 million lobbying campaign to stop it funded by the oil industry.

The new technologies in the manufacture of engines for heavy duty trucks and construction equipment will soon reduce diesel pollution by 90 percent. This may almost eliminate the cancer risk of truck emissions.

Oregon has not funded diesel engine upgrades since fiscal year 2007-09. Oregon invests only 5 percent of the amount of funds Washington has dedicated to diesel cleanup since 2002. By upgrading the diesel engines of these vehicles, $17 would be saved for every dollar invested. The tax credit program was eliminated in 2012 and the funding for upgrading school buses has been cut.

When Volkswagen was found to have deceived regulators about their auto pollution control systems, they had to pay a settlement of $15 billion in the United States. Oregon received about $70 million of this money to help clean up the diesel problem, but there is controversy around how these funds should be used in spite of the known health risks diesel fumes are known to cause – lung cancer, asthma, heart disease, and birth complications.

Large companies can deal with this issue, but it is the small companies that can’t afford to buy expensive new trucks. There is no license or registration needed for these off road vehicles in Oregon making regulation difficult.

In 2015, California had 350,000 trucks that no longer could be used because of their new diesel emissions standards that are among the toughest in the country. The solution for the affected companies was to sell their trucks in states where they are still legal, like in Oregon.

Not only are these trucks still legal, but the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) cannot easily track these imported trucks from California. Even so, California adopted their rules in 2008, but have only recently begun to strictly enforce them.

Federal standards for truck emissions were tightened in 2010. While ODOT does have a small program to address this issue, the new influx of older polluting vehicles has overloaded the market.

Over the last fifteen years, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has spent over $7 million dollars to replace, retrofit, or retire almost a thousand old diesel engines to reduce the pollution. This is less than one percent of the vehicles currently in service. Most of the clean-up money is coming from federal grants, but the amount is far short of what is needed.

Oregon Senator Michael Dembrow has been working on this issue for years and is the sponsor of legislation to help truck owners retrofit their trucks to a safe standard or to dispose of them and buy new ones. He has not found a welcoming environment within the House or Senate.

In 2015 the Oregon Legislature passed a Clean Fuels Program (SB 324) that would keep 7 million tons of carbon from polluting our air.

Representatives in Oregon talk about a comprehensive solution, but business is not willing too support it. In the 2016 legislative session three bills (House Bill 3310, Senate Bill 823, and Senate Bill 824) were introduced and failed to make it out of committee before the legislature adjourned. Many hope that appropriate solutions will be found soon.