CALmatters Commentary: Californians could breathe easier if legislators pass this bill

NOTE: This commentary originally appeared on CALmatter’s website.

Since 1984, Californians have been pulling their older cars and pickups into smog-check stations and pulling out their wallets to pay for a test to certify that their vehicles meet state emission standards. The average cost for a vehicle-inspection in 2018 was $48.60.

It has been money well spent. Every day the program prevents 400 tons of tailpipe emissions from entering our air and our lungs.

So it might surprise–if not shock–most Californians to learn that there is no similar inspection and maintenance requirement for diesel big-rigs other than a minimal smoke test.

Heavy duty diesel trucks contribute nearly 60% of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and more than 80% of fine diesel particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, emitted in California from all on-road sources. This is clearly a problem that needs fixing.

That’s why my organization, Coalition for Clean Air, backs Senate Bill 210, by Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Chino. This bill would direct the California Air Resources Board to create a smog-check program for heavy-duty diesel trucks.

But its passage is far from assured. It’s set to be heard Monday in the Assembly Transportation Committee, the very committee that killed an earlier version of the bill last year.

We believe Senate Bill 210 is the most important air-quality bill being considered by Sacramento lawmakers this year. We’re not alone. A long-list of health and environmental organizations support SB 210, including American Lung Association in California, Environment California and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

If approved, it would improve air quality and public health in communities choked by smog, protect our changing climate from black carbon–a powerful super pollutant–and create a level playing field for truckers who take the time and money to maintain their vehicles adequately.

The bill would authorize the air resources board to establish test procedures that trucks weighing 14,000 pounds or more would have to pass in order to register or operate in the state. A streamlined process would be available for operators of fleets with established compliance histories.

This system would allow the vast majority of truckers to pass without difficulty, snag the small fraction of big rigs that generate most of the pollution and give operators a good reason to keep their trucks properly maintained.

There’s no question about the need for the bill. The harmful impacts of diesel exhaust are irrefutable.

Diesel exhaust contains more than 40 known cancer-causing organic substances and gaseous pollutants, including volatile organic compounds and NOx, a key ingredient in ground-level ozone, otherwise known as smog.

About one million heavy-duty diesel trucks operate in California annually. The pollutants they churn out accelerate the climate crisis, and are also preventing millions of Californians–particularly in low-income communities of color who tend to live closer to freeway–from breathing healthy air.

Exposure to diesel emissions can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. It can contribute to heart and lung diseases, asthma, cancer, and even premature death. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.

A smog-check program for heavy-duty diesel is long overdue.

SB 210 is the low-hanging fruit in California’s effort to improve our air quality and to bring large swaths of our state into compliance with federal clean-air standards. The California Air Resources Board estimates that the passage of SB 210 would prevent the release of 93,000 tons of NOx between 2023 and 2031.

That the equivalent of taking 145,000 heavy-duty diesels off the road–and avert the release of 1,600 tons of PM2.5, equal to parking 375,000 big-rigs.

A smog-check program for big-rig diesels is a proposed action in the state’s multi-agency California Sustainable Freight Action Plan of 2016 and CARB’s State Implementation Plan of 2017, the state’s strategy to attain health-based federal air quality standards.

The Legislature can make this plan a reality by passing SB 210. And Californians will be able to breathe easier.

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