Health board clouds inquiry into diesel emissions testing

Saturday , May 09, 2015 - 10:23 AM

OGDEN — The proposition of diesel emissions testing in Weber County is starting to get messy.

Members of the Weber-Morgan Health Board recently listened to a presentation on a possible diesel-testing program in the county. It would apply to around 8,000 vehicles, models 2008 and newer, only in the Weber County non-attainment area. But environmental health director Lou Cooper contended that it’s one more step in the right direction to clear smoggy Weber skies and protect human health.

Certain board members, however, argued that Cooper’s information was biased.

“I do have a bias for health, that’s what I do, so I’m going to talk about particulate,” he told the Standard-Examiner. “I could say ‘yes, it’s going to cause you to go get a car tested that you’ve never had to test before.’ It’s a con, but is that a justifiable con?”

To help meet federal air quality standards, emissions tests are required for all gasoline vehicle models 1968 and newer. Diesel vehicles, however, are not tested in the county.

The board has the final say, and vote, on whether diesel testing ultimately comes to the county. They’ll need to make a decision by October so the Department of Motor Vehicles can mail out the new requirements with registration renewal notices.

Cooper prepared a presentation for the health board on a possible diesel program late last January. But February’s board meeting was canceled, and in March, the board voted not to hear Cooper’s information.

He finally got a chance to briefly present information on the proposed plan at a board meeting on April 27.

“This is a hot-button issue with the state implementation plan and … the way the DEQ (Utah Division of Environmental Quality) is trying to find new ways to reduce pollution,” Cooper said.

Gas-burning cars mainly emit vapors that mix in the atmosphere and form particles later. Diesel vehicles mostly emit particles directly. According to Cooper, particulate pollution coming from inefficient diesel vehicles can often be more hazardous to human health than gasoline emissions. That’s why he’d like to see diesel testing.

“We figured this is a logical, low-cost way to address our air quality issue and improve the community’s health,” Cooper said.

His presentation included information about health impacts from the particulate pollution. He explained how emissions testing technology has changed in recent years. Inspection and maintenance shops that currently test gasoline vehicles can test newer models of diesel vehicles, with no additional cost.

Cooper also noted a study from the Oregon Vehicle Inspection Program that showed in areas where vehicle emissions tests weren’t required, one in five vehicles ignored their “check engine” light telling them their vehicle emissions controls were defective.

Cooper’s concern is that could be the case for the untested diesel vehicles in the county.

“If you have diesel, you can (pass) a safety inspection and go on forever as long as the drivability is there,” Cooper said.

Weber County commissioners and Pleasant View Mayor Toby Mileski, who also serve on the health board, took issue with Cooper’s information, calling it incomplete and biased.

“My frustration with this from the minute I saw the presentation is that this is extremely one-sided,” said Commissioner Kerry Gibson. “When I’m involved with legislating, I want to make sure I look at both sides, pros and cons.”

As an example of what he considered bias, Gibson noted a photo included with the presentation showing a truck blowing black smoke due to illegal tampering.

“We’ve had (two) pieces of legislation that passed this year alone that addressed this issue,” Gibson said. “We’ve got to solve the problem, but when I see slides like that, to me, it’s just scare tactics.”

Those pieces of state legislation, House Bill 110 and House Bill 17, make it illegal for newer diesel vehicles to have visible emissions in most circumstances. The new laws also give counties the authority to issue tickets and revoke registration for smoking vehicles.

Cooper noted the new legislation during his presentation. He also said that diesel vehicles could still emit high levels of particulate matter without having dark, smoky exhaust. The new laws don’t address unseen emissions.

“It won’t help us with vehicles with the ‘check engine’ light on, that are still putting out plenty of particulate, but you just can’t see it,” Cooper said during the presentation.

Mileski took issue with Cooper’s data. The mayor obtained his own figures from the Bear River Health Department’s diesel-testing program in Cache County, which started last year.

“The initial diesel tampering inspections, which they do on vehicles 1998 to 2006, was 1,210, and only 45 of those failed, so that’s a 3.7 percent fail rate of diesel tampering,” Mileski said. “That is low.”

In a follow-up interview with the Standard-Examiner, the Bear River Health Department confirmed those numbers, but also said they “really questioned the efficacy of the tampering test” and that “tampering alone may not be an effective view” of whether high emissions are present.

Mileski then took issue with the emissions failure rate Cooper cited from the Oregon Vehicle Inspection Program study.

“The estimate of 20 percent of vehicles with the ‘check engine’ light … I don’t necessarily know if I believe that,” he said.

He again cited Bear River Health Department figures. Last year, they tested 221 diesel vehicles in Cache County, from model year 2008. Nineteen of those vehicles weren’t in compliance. That’s a failure rate of 8.5 percent, far less than the 20 percent found in the Oregon study.

Cooper countered, however, that the Oregon study included many model years, not just 2008 vehicles.

Mileski later pointed out that between 2007 and 2013, around 25,000 more cars were added to Weber County roads, but emissions didn’t get any worse.

“So (that) tells me a lot of the older (inefficient) cars … they’re just going away,” he said. “So I don’t think diesel will make a difference unless we get proactive on idling and trips.”

Board members then expressed concerns over the cost of the emissions testing to diesel drivers. The health department’s proposed diesel program would apply to around 8,000 vehicles in the county, only testing light-duty trucks and cars newer than 2007. An emissions test for diesel vehicles would cost the same as the test for gas cars, at $30 per vehicle.

Commissioner Matthew Bell quipped that if the county was considering testing diesel truck emissions, maybe they should also look at methane emissions from cows.

Ken Johnson, a professor of health professions at Weber State University, and the only health board member to speak in favor of testing, said that 8.5 percent failure rate was still significant.

“That’s still a pretty good chunk,” he said. “To suggest it’s not going to make difference, that’s like saying ‘I should eat whatever I want because if I don’t diet all the way and exercise all the way it’s not going to make a difference.’”

Salt Lake, Davis and Cache counties have implemented diesel programs to help clear their polluted air.

In the past five years, Weber County’s average PM 2.5 concentrations have routinely surpassed those in Salt Lake and Davis counties, despite having fewer registered vehicles.

“I couldn’t tell you why,” Cooper told the Standard-Examiner. “Is it because we don’t have a diesel program? Is it our topography? I wouldn’t dare allude, but it’s obvious it’s a homegrown problem, not a problem coming from somewhere else.”

Still, health board members said they’d like to see more solid data on how much, exactly, diesel testing would help particulate pollution in Weber County.

“I’m not interested in in putting another government regulation on the citizenry without proper statistics and data to back it up,” Mileski told the Standard-Examiner in an interview.

Utah’s inversion pollution problem is complicated, however, and researchers are only beginning to understand how pollutants interact and how particles form. There are a lot of variables, and pinpointing sources in fine detail is difficult, Cooper said.

“Some of that research hasn’t been done,” he said. “It’s true … 8,000 vehicles is not going to be a giant impact, but it’s definitely going to be an impact.”

Regarding the “one-sidedness” of his presentation, Cooper noted that he was constrained by time, but he did his best to provide the board with good information from peer-reviewed studies.

Cooper told the Standard-Examiner that he did provide board members with a list of nine “benefits” from the proposed diesel program and three “disadvantages.” Those disadvantages included the $30 testing fee per vehicle, repairs costs to bring some vehicles into compliance and additional training for technicians.

“But what does it cost if you’re a borderline asthmatic, and particulate pushes you into becoming asthmatic?” he said. “ You’ve got to go to the doctor, you’ve got to be treated for a long time.”

Largely absent from the diesel debate has been the voice of the public. Cooper and health board members interviewed by the Standard-Examiner said no one had lobbied them in support of or against diesel testing.

“You can hold a hearing on this, but no one is going to show up — they’re busy,” Cooper said. “But if you went out on the street and took a poll, you’d hear, ‘oh yeah, my grandson has asthma, my kids have asthma, we should do something about this air.’”

Craig Butters, who owns a local auto repair shop and is the vice president of CE Butters Construction, has followed the diesel-testing proposal and attended board discussions on the issue. He said he’s open to the idea of a diesel emissions program, but appreciated the board’s tough response.

“I am all for things that give us clean air, but I’m against imposing fees and all kinds of more money on the general public if it’s not going to reduce the problem,” he said.

He also said he felt the department’s proposed program is too scaled down to be effective. Salt Lake and Davis counties, for example, use technologies that measure the actual pollutants coming from a tailpipe, instead of relying on a vehicle’s on-board diagnostics.

“We’re not doing the high-end test to make sure there’s no actual pollutant coming from the tailpipe, we’re just checking for a ‘check engine’ light, and that’s just for 2008 (vehicles) and newer,” he said.

The proposed program wouldn’t impact Butters’ construction business, because it wouldn’t apply to heavy-duty vehicles. But as a repair and testing shop owner, he said he’s concerned about the increased burden of unnecessary regulation coming from the health department.

“Sometimes it seems like ‘why (is the board) being so hard on the health department?’ But they need to be to do their job,” he said. “They need to ask the hard questions to get the answers. I look at it as this as the way it should be.”

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