City seeks to tackle diesel pollution

The proposal would require construction equipment to use diesel emission filters. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff) 

By David Abel  | Globe Staff |  December 19, 2011 

The dark halo of soot that often hangs over construction projects around Boston could go the way of smoking in bars and unfiltered smokestacks if city officials take action on a proposed measure.
For years, environmental groups have blamed the diesel fumes belched by bulldozers, cranes, and other construction equipment for contributing to the area's high asthma rates and other airborne ailments. They cite data from the Environmental Protection Agency showing Suffolk County has more diesel pollution - 300 times the amount considered acceptable by the federal government - than 99 percent of the nation's counties, more than one-third of it spewed by construction equipment.
Now, as Congress slashes federal aid to reduce diesel emissions, local activists are prodding city officials to require contractors that do business with the city or work on city-subsidized projects to buy expensive filtration devices that would eliminate nearly all the toxic pollutants they emit.
``As an asthmatic, I see this as a major public health threat,'' said Boston city councilor Felix G. Arroyo, who will host a hearing tomorrow on a proposed ordinance that would curb diesel emissions from construction projects throughout the city. ``The importance of this bill is to ensure we have cleaner air for all of our residents.''
City officials are reviewing the proposed ordinance, which is part of a broader effort activists hope will inspire state lawmakers to pass a similar bill that has failed over recent years in the Legislature. But city officials have reservations, saying the ordinance could hurt smaller contractors who cannot afford to buy filters costing up to $20,000.
They also note that Boston, with the help of federal grants, has already retrofitted more than 900 of its 1,390 diesel vehicles, including all city school buses, and that all vehicles bought since 2007 are required to have hybrid engines or use alternative fuels such as ultra-low-sulfur diesel.
Boston suffers from unusually high diesel pollution because it is one of the nation's most densely populated cities and serves as the center of commerce for the region. Officials at the Boston Public Health Commission say at least 1 in 10 children in Boston have asthma, which can be triggered by ingesting the microscopic carbon particles from diesel exhaust. The toxins can enter the bloodstream from the lungs and increase the risk of a range of illnesses, including cancer, stroke, and heart attacks.
``Generally, the city has been in the vanguard of these issues, particularly in light of our concerns about young children who have asthma,'' said Jim Hunt, chief of the mayor's office of energy and environment services. ``But we need to think about the costs and the effect on small, local contractors.''
Among the companies that would bear the costs if the ordinance is passed is J. Derenzo Co., which has nearly 500 pieces of equipment and vehicles that use diesel fuel.
``It would cost a fortune,'' said a company vice president, Mike McCarthy. ``There would be a lot of hardship, especially in this economy, and you might put some small guys out of business.''
Hunt also questioned whether the ordinance would be legal. He cited a federal court ruling two years ago that overturned a city requirement that all taxis in Boston be hybrids. ``We're looking at whether the city has the legal authority to regulate, incentivize, or require . . . that contractors retrofit their vehicles with emission controls,'' he said.
But officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection said that for the past several years, they have required companies bidding on state contracts to use filters that reduce diesel emissions. Their last estimate in 2007 found that more than 600,000 vehicles and 72,000 pieces of construction, mining, logging, or agricultural equipment produced 4,000 tons of diesel emissions in Massachusetts.
In part because of the requirement to use filters, state officials expect diesel pollution to fall 75 percent below 2002 levels by the end of the decade. They said nearly $10 million in federal grants have enabled the state to retrofit about 3,000 engines, such as those powering garbage trucks and MBTA trains.
``It's important to curb diesel emissions, because they emit tiny microscopic particles that have significant health effects,'' said Ken Kimmell, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. ``We have allocated funds to cut diesel emissions in populations that would be the most sensitive to diesel emissions and would benefit the most by reducing those emissions.''
Some state lawmakers say the Patrick administration has not gone far enough and see the proposed Boston ordinance as an example of how the state could further cut smog and airborne diseases.
The ordinance would require contractors to use filters that would eliminate as much as 90 percent of the diesel emissions. The state now requires contractors to use much less expensive filters, costing as little as $2,000, that remove only about a quarter of the toxins.
``If we're in the business of trying to create a cleaner environment, we should shoot for the moon and try to mandate the highest form of screening,'' said state Senator Jack Hart, a Democrat from South Boston. An asthmatic and the father of three asthmatic children, he sponsored the bill on Beacon Hill to curb diesel emissions. ``Why should we settle for 25 percent when we can get up to 90 percent? We have a responsibility to do the best we can.''
Kimmell said the lower-priced filters enable more contractors to use them, and arguably do more to prevent pollution than the higher-priced filters.
Hart and others said city and state efforts are increasingly important as federal aid dries up.
The Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, passed by Congress in 2005, appropriated nearly $350 million to states in 2008. That dwindled to $32 million last fiscal year, and this year, Congress has not designated any money to reduce diesel pollution.
``It is worrisome,'' said Gary Rennie, an environmental protection specialist for the EPA in New England.
He said about 11 million diesel engines should be retrofitted around the country, but only 30,000 have received filters.
While environmental groups note the progress - the MBTA's bus fleet, for example, now produces 92 percent less particulate matter than it did in 2000 - they say more needs to be done. The EPA's most recent national assessment of air toxins in 2005, they said, shows that every year, about 21,000 people in the country die prematurely because of diesel emissions, including an estimated 127 in the Boston area.
``There's a lot of work left to be done, especially with construction vehicles,'' said Vanessa Green, coordinator for Massachusetts Diesel Coalition, which has been lobbying for new regulations.
Other supporters of the ordinance are construction workers.
``We're the ones most affected,'' said Representative Martin J. Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat who serves as director of Boston Building Trades Council. ``We see this as a way to provide for a healthier workplace.''
Among those scheduled to testify at tomorrow's hearing in City Hall is Whitney Ogbesoyen, 16, who said many of her relatives have asthma.
She lives near Dudley Square and worries about all the toxic fumes and particles she has inhaled over the years. ``Whatever the costs, people's health is more important,'' she said.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.