Photo by David McNew | Getty Images
Growing up amid the opaque skies of Los Angeles resulted in childhood asthma for DJ Portugal. To protect his four children from the same fate, he moved to Phoenix, hoping for clearer vistas and cleaner skies. But the Valley of the Sun has consistently failed to meet air quality standards, a side effect of its status as an ever expanding business and transportation hub.
With the Environmental Protection Agency still in the process of creating more stringent rules to regulate greenhouse emissions from heavy-duty trucks, Portugal and other clean air advocates gathered on Tuesday to demand results this year. Portugal, an organizing director for Chispa Arizona, a local climate change action organization, warned that failing to protect Arizona’s air would have painful consequences for the state’s youth.
“I’ve experienced the panic that comes with not being able to breathe,” he said. “I can vividly recall those nights when I sat in front of a fan, struggling to breathe during severe asthma attacks.”
The EPA’s new rules, proposed in April but not yet finalized, are the last stage of three rounds of changes targeting greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants released by heavy-duty trucks. They include increasingly stricter carbon dioxide regulations for heavy duty trucks built from 2028 through 2032, and updated restrictions on model year 2027 trucks, all with the aim of reducing the rate of pollution.
Heavy duty vehicles, weighing more than 10,000 pounds and ranging from buses to delivery trucks, have faced increasing criticism due to their disproportionate contributions to environmental pollution. While they represent just 10% of all on-road vehicles, heavy duty trucks are responsible for nearly 30% of all transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions and 57% of all particulate matter emissions, such as soot and smoke.
The City of Phoenix has moved to reduce the impact of its heavy-duty vehicles by phasing out gas-dependent buses to low and zero-emission vehicles. City officials have set a goal of converting the entire 500-bus fleet to zero-emission vehicles by 2040.
JoAnna Strother, director of advocacy for the Southwest region of the American Lung Association, called on the EPA to take swift action, pointing to pollution-related health risks as a matter of critical urgency.
“Transportation emissions are the primary driver of our air pollution burdens,” she said on Tuesday. “Pollution from trucks and buses dirties our air, threatens our health and can lead to respiratory diseases, like asthma and heart attacks ranging from heart attacks to lung cancer to premature death.”
The American Lung Association’s most recent survey ranked Maricopa County 7th out of 25 of the worst counties for ozone, a pollutant that occurs as a result of a chemical reaction between sunlight and other pollutants emitted by sources such as cars and industrial plants. The colorless gas can be extremely harmful in high quantities and climate change means that Arizona, and the Valley especially, is seeing a drastic increase in ozone levels.
“We are in a climate that isn’t really forgiving,” Strother said. “And that’s why we have to pass policies to really protect people in Arizona and the county.”
For Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, it’s way past time for the EPA to take a more aggressive stance. The rules governing heavy duty trucks haven’t been revised in more than two decades. But, regardless of the lapse in oversight, finalizing the new rules is imperative to secure a healthy climate for future Arizonans, Humble said.
“This isn’t about me, and it’s not about people my age,” he said. “This is about this generation of kids. Because these EPA standards are, really, for the future.”
While the EPA is on track to implement its new rulemaking around truck pollution, proponents are concerned that any delay could result in a challenge from Republicans if the party captures both congressional chambers next year.
The public comment period for the new rules ended in early June, during which the agency received five different extension requests, including ones from the American Bus Association, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Trucking Association. Each organization requested a longer comment period to better analyze the impacts of the new rules and respond more thoroughly; the EPA denied all five requests, noting that the 50-day comment period was sufficient.
The American Trucking Association warned in its public comments that the EPA’s proposal would effectively force trucking operations to buy new, zero-emission trucks — a cost prohibitive and logistically difficult endeavor for many, especially long haul truckers. And, the association said, the technology available today isn’t yet as reliable as gasoline- and diesel-fueled vehicles.
“Today’s (zero-emissions vehicles) require significant pre-planning before operations can begin, the expected operational savings are not currently being realized, and the technology in certain applications is further off for cost parity with diesel and other drop-in fuels,” wrote the association. “Fleets remain optimistic about the promise of these technologies. Still, they are facing hurdles with infrastructure delays, high upfront costs, and proof of performance, depending on the operational and duty cycle.”
The association recommended that the EPA instead take more time to research the obstacles of its zero-emission goals, explore ways to make them more attainable and delay restrictions until 2030, at the earliest. Including low-emission fuels, like renewable diesel, biofuels and natural gas in the plan would be one way to work towards a zero-emission future without compromising the effectiveness and stability of heavy duty trucking operations.
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