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Biden administration moves to cut smog-forming pollution from heavy trucks

The Environmental Protection Agency proposes curbing nitrogen oxide and carbon pollution amid an online shopping boom, but some environmentalists call for stricter limits

Cars and trucks move along the Cross Bronx Expressway in New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Biden administration on Monday proposed curbing pollution pouring out of the tailpipes of new tractor-trailers, buses and other heavy-duty vehicles that forms smog, along with emissions warming the planet.

The Environmental Protection Agency offered a new rule to cut the emission of nitrogen oxides — poisonous and reactive gases that can cause asthma attacks — from engines in some of the biggest vehicles on America’s roadways. In the same proposal, the agency will also consider further limiting the amount of carbon dioxide these vehicles spew into the air.

The draft smog rule marks the first potential update to those heavy-duty tailpipe standards in two decades and comes as Biden is seeking ways to advance his environmental agenda outside Congress. The standards would apply to not only huge 18-wheelers hauling freight on highways, but also many school buses, delivery vans and moving trucks.

The pollution from diesel-powered trucks has a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and those of color located near highways, ports and other heavily trafficked sites. The surge in delivery orders to people’s homes during the pandemic has worsened air pollution in some neighborhoods near the scores of warehouses built in recent years to satisfy America’s growing online shopping habits.

“These overburdened communities are directly exposed to pollution that causes respiratory and cardiovascular problems, among other serious and costly health effects,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

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In Manhattan, for instance, all but one city bus depot is housed in Harlem or other historically minority neighborhoods north of 96th Street. On the other side of the country, pollution from trucks carrying goods out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach falls heavily on the health of the many Hispanic neighborhoods living alongside Interstate 710 and other roads inland.

“All along that freeway, there are two-dozen communities which see several-hundred-thousand trucks and cars each day,” said Ed Avol, a professor of clinical preventive medicine at the University of Southern California.

Elva Cordoba, 71, has to breathe the fumes from cargo trucks nearly every day from her duplex abutting a large parking lot in San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles. The parking lot next to a Pizza Hut along W. Base Line Street is a regular staging ground for semi-trucks, and Cordoba says six or seven of them are often parked there.

“When it’s hot outside, the environment gets very bad. The air is very dirty,” said Cordoba, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico. She has lived in her house for 22 years, just over a mile from city hall.

The fumes give her allergies, red and inflamed eyes, and cause her to snore, she said. One of her adult sons moved to Washington state because of health problems due to the poor air quality.

While some environmentalists welcomed the new proposal, other criticized the Biden administration for not taking more aggressive steps to spur the sale of electric trucks that emit no air pollution.

“Any rule that doesn’t include requirements that some of these new trucks be electrified seems to be a missed opportunity,” said Paul Cort, an attorney with the law firm Earthjustice who used to work at EPA’s Office of General Counsel as a lawyer.

Nitrogen oxides form when gasoline, diesel and other fossil fuels burn at high temperatures, and breathing them can trigger asthma attacks and lead to other health problems. When wafted into the air, these gases contribute to smog, soot and acid rain.

About 72 million people live within 200 meters or about 220 yards of a truck freight route, the EPA estimates. Avol said many of these communities with “higher exposures” to these pollutants “tend to be more at risk in terms of poorer health.”

The proposed requirements for nitrogen oxides would apply to heavy-duty vehicles made in Model Year 2027, and within another four years would cut average emissions by 90 percent below today’s federal standards. If adopted, they would put the entire country in line with standards for heavy-duty vehicles adopted by California. The proposal will be open for public comment for 46 days.

The air pollution gains would avert up to 2,100 premature deaths and 18,000 cases of childhood asthma annually, according to the EPA. The agency, which aims to finalize the regulation by the end of the year, will also consider a less stringent option.

“It’s a really important rule,” said Paul Billings, a senior vice president of public policy at the American Lung Association. “It saves a lot of lives and reduces a lot of pollution.”

EPA is also proposing to slightly tighten greenhouse gas emissions from certain heavy-duty vehicles — including school buses, transit buses, commercial delivery trucks and short-haul tractors — made starting in 2027. Down the road, the agency said, it will write another set of “significantly stronger” carbon limits for trucks made as early as 2030. The transportation sector is the nation’s largest contributor to climate change, and heavy- and medium-duty trucks make up nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.

At a White House event Monday, Vice President Harris also announced a suite of actions aimed at cutting emissions from the largest vehicles on roadways, including $1.1 billion in Transportation Department funding this year for state and local governments to purchase cleaner transit buses. She recalled once visiting Mira Loma, Calif., another community trafficked by diesel trucks, where she could “taste the metal in the air” from the exhaust.

“My eyes burned,” she said. “The toxicity in the air was that thick.”

The push for stricter tailpipe emission limits from heavy trucks reflects Biden’s broader push to transition the nation to an all-electric fleet. In December, the administration finalized new limits on carbon emissions for passenger cars and light trucks, and it has started to spend $5 billion on expanding charging stations across the country.

Though some major corporations — including Amazon, PepsiCo and Ikea — have promised to electrify parts of their fleets, cleaning up heavy-duty vehicles is a tougher hill to climb, amid concerns about the battery weight and charging requirements involved in long-distance trucking. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, which represents Cummins, PACCAR and other diesel engine makers, said it supports stricter limits on nitrogen oxides, though it is concerned about raising trucking companies’ costs.

“If the new [nitrogen oxides] rule is not compatible with those very real customer needs, fleets simply won’t purchase the new EPA-compliant engines,” the group said. “As a result, higher-polluting engines will remain on the road.”

Right now, truck fleets, pinched by high diesel prices, are pressing the Biden administration to boost U.S. oil production and lower fuel costs even as they transition to cleaner engines.

“The trucking industry supports an all-of-the-above approach when it comes to securing our energy future,” American Trucking Associations President and Chief Executive Chris Spear said in a statement. “But the transition to cleaner and renewable fuels over the horizon requires a practical, common-sense bridge in the here-and-now, beginning with the abundant sources readily available here at home.”

Biden officials have even encountered resistance within the federal government: Last month the U.S. Postal Service defied Biden officials’ objections to the purchase of up to 148,000 gasoline-powered vehicles.

Andrea Vidaurre, a co-founder of the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice, a group based in Southern California, said local and federal officials need to do a better job of not only regulating how much pollution trucks emit, but where warehouses and other shipping infrastructure are located. She faulted Biden for pushing for more hours of operation at the Los Angeles port amid supply-chain bottlenecks.

“You are not allowed to do that until we get zero-emission trucks in our communities,” she said. “How else do you safely do it? Because right now it’s not safely being done.”

Joshua Partlow contributed to this report.

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