Contractors Face Pressure to Lower Diesel Engine Pollution
March 29, 2005 — By Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Construction companies are being pressured to retrofit diesel-operated trucks and machines with pollution control equipment or risk losing business.
"There's plenty of concern among executives," Ken Simonson, chief economist for Associated General Contractors of America, said Monday.
The Alexandria, Va., trade group represents more than 33,000 contractors, including many in Wisconsin. It has asked Congress to pass legislation that would give contractors immediate tax breaks for installing pollution control devices on diesel engines, including some engines that are 25 years old.
The association wants the legislation included in a national highway reconstruction bill that Congress could vote on in a few weeks, according to Simonson.
"It would not be limited to highway construction equipment, but that's a big piece of where the pollution issues are and the equipment that's affected," he said.
The Environmental Protection Agency has already launched a voluntary program that encourages contractors to install pollution-reducing equipment on diesels. Some states and local government agencies have gone further, requiring contractors to have the equipment in order to get public-funded work.
States are trying to cut pollution from many sources, and diesel engines are a prime target. Diesels are one of the largest producers of cancer-causing toxins in urban areas, according to the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.
Contractors would like to cut diesel emissions but want help with the costs.
"Currently, construction equipment owners who retrofit engines are at a cost disadvantage to those who don't retrofit," Simonson said. It can cost as much as $4,000 per engine to install the pollution control equipment.
"It's expensive, there's no direct benefit to the owner, and suitable devices are unavailable for many types of engines," Simonson said.
But retrofitting construction equipment with advanced emissions controls and burning cleaner fuel could result in greater reductions in pollution than replacing older engines, according to the contractors association.
"Good candidates for this program include school bus fleets, transit bus fleets, sanitation trucks and freight haulers," Simonson said. "Even better candidates are fleets of off-road construction equipment," which are some of the worst polluters.
California and other states have included pollution control requirements in their public construction contracts. Cities such as New York have taken similar actions.
The pollution issue has received more attention in recent months, said Mike Fabishak, chief executive officer of Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee.
It could be disastrous for contractors if diesel pollution laws are enacted without taking into account the financial needs of contractors, Fabishak said.
Under a draft of the proposed legislation, contractors could immediately write off the cost of emissions-reduction equipment, rather than expensing it over a longer period. There's a precedent in the IRS tax code for such a write-off, according to the association.
"But this might not be the time to be creating more tax loopholes, when we have out-of-control spending in Washington," said Bruce Nilles, a Sierra Club clean air specialist in Madison.
Trucking companies that make even occasional runs to California could be affected by an engine pollution ruling there, according to the Engine Manufacturers Association, a Chicago trade group.
Last week, the association sued the California Air Resources Board for speeding up efforts to reduce nitrous oxide pollution from trucks.
Under the changes, trucks would not be allowed to do business in California unless they met stringent requirements on a timetable that engine manufacturers say is too fast.
"We feel that California has gone way beyond its authority," said Joe Suchecki, Engine Manufacturers Association spokesman.
But the engine companies were too slow in retrofitting older engines with pollution-reduction equipment, according to California officials.