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Hurt by recession, building, ag industry stand to get reprieve on equipment

NORTH COAST -- Companies that operate diesel construction or agricultural equipment are heartened by the potential of a reprieve of a few years from state clean-air rules they contend would force retrofits or replacements for most of their fleets at a time of severe economic contraction in many of their industries.

Part of the deal-making to get the needed votes to pass the state budget-balancing package Feb. 19 was a provision to delay the heavy-duty off-road diesel engine emissions rules the California Air Resources Board approved in July 2007.

In the deal, equipment owners would get compliance credit for vehicles or engines they’ve already retrofitted or sold as well as for the fewer number of hours the engines have been running since the peak in construction activity in 2006, according to Kim Heroy-Rogalski, who oversees implementation of the off-road diesel rule for the board.

"It amounts to a several-year delay for most fleets,” she said.

Key elements of the diesel deal are:

Full compliance credit is available for vehicles liquidated between March 1, 2006 and March 1, 2010, as long as the total fleet horsepower decreased. Owners could use that credit at any time.

Credit for reduced engine operating hours from June 1, 2006 to March 1, 2010 could be applied to compliance requirements in 2010 and 2011.

In 2011 to 2013, 20 percent of the fleet horsepower could be retrofitted or retired the first year, 20 percent the second year and the remainder the third year.

Under the original rules, fleets totaling more than 5,000 horsepower for equipment used more than 100 hours annually would have to start meeting fleet-average nitrous-oxide and soot targets next year. Medium-sized fleets with 2,500 to 5,000 horsepower would have to start complying in 2013, and small fleets would have to hit just the soot standards starting in 2015.

Air board staff is planning to release details of the off-road rule revisions this month to garner comments for a board hearing. Air board staff and a number of environment-protection organizations aren’t happy with the deal.

"We're really concerned that this will grind progress to a halt," Ms. Heroy-Rogalski said. “Many fleets would need to take action to clean their emissions by next March.” She said owners of a couple of hundred fleets with 17,000 vehicles already have filed reports ahead of the April 1 deadline to start reporting fleet details to the air board.

The off-road rule revision doesn’t change the reporting deadline. Nor does it change the rule’s five-minute idling limit, which took effect last summer and is starting to be enforced at job sites statewide.

The budget deal also doesn’t affect the on-road diesel emissions rule the air board approved in December. However, in January, the air board extended the deadline for getting double credit for off-road exhaust retrofits from March 1 to January 2010.

In making its case for inclusion of a rule-implementation delay as part of the budget package, construction industry groups asserted that any economic stimulus efforts that include infrastructure projects also should include relief from regulations on contractors that would be working on those projects, according to Tom Holsman, chief operating officer of Associated General Contractors of California.

"We never argued over cleaning the air in California, but on the timeline and cost and availability of technology,” Mr. Holsman said.

Heavy-equipment operators are working one-third fewer hours than in 2007, and California construction industry revenue has contracted by $22 billion from the time the off-road rule was adopted, according to the contractors group.

Damon Calegari, who manages the fleet for Ghilotti Construction of Santa Rosa, said the company is barely on track to meet the first deadlines for the off-road rule. Compliance with the on-road diesel emissions rule is still looming. “We’ve disposed of a great number of pieces of equipment,” he said.

Another part of the construction groups’ argument that still needs to be worked out is concern about availability and safety of retrofit technology. After an August petition by the contractor group and the trade union Operating Engineers Local No. 3, the state Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board has called on the air board to take another look at its list of verified diesel exhaust control systems.

For details on the off-road diesel rule, visit www.arb.ca.gov/msprog/ordiesel/ordiesel.htm.