Diesel industry speaks in favor of Utah bill meant to curb coal-rolling

Thursday , March 01, 2018 - 5:00 AM2 comments

As an anti-coal rolling bill wheels its way through the Utah Legislature, big movers and shakers in the diesel industry have thrown their support behind ending the practice.

The House gave its full support to House Bill 171, which would impose stiff fines on drivers who illegally modify their cars and trucks to blow smoke. It would also require law enforcement to report such tampering to local health departments so they can work in tandem with the Division of Motor Vehicles to revoke registrations for repeat offenders.

On Feb. 21, the day of the House vote, representatives with the Diesel Technology Forum issued a statement in support of the measure.

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“Rolling coal is one of our least favorite things,” Executive Director Allen Schaeffer told the Standard-Examiner. “That’s why we’ve been supporting legislative actions across the country ... to come up with a meaningful way to discourage this practice.”

The Diesel Technology Forum is a non-lobbying nonprofit that represents manufacturers, suppliers and fuel makers in the diesel industry. They cover everything from diesel-fueled pickups to train engines to mining equipment.

The organization has taken an interest in coal-rolling recently, partly because it has put the diesel industry in a bad light. As the forum noted in their statement to the Utah Legislature, the industry has spent millions on research and technology to reduce the pollution coming from diesel tailpipes. 

“Black smoke pouring out of any diesel vehicle is not normal operation. Either something broken or tampered with and it needs to be addressed,” Schaeffer said.

Tampering with any vehicle’s emissions controls is illegal under the U.S. Clean Air Act, whether it’s removing the catalytic converter from a gas car or chipping a diesel engine to blow black smoke at an intersection.

Until recently, local health officials didn’t have the teeth to enforce emissions tampering with diesels.

In 2015, Utah lawmakers passed a bill granting health departments the authority to revoke registrations for vehicles that don’t meet emissions standards.

Weber County only began requiring emissions tests for diesel-powered vehicles last year. Those emissions tests include an inspection for tampering. The past year’s worth of data shows how pervasive the problem became while diesel flew under regulators’ radar.

Around 18.6 percent of diesel car and truck owners in the county failed their emissions test — nearly one in five vehicles. And 7.5 percent of diesels in the county had evidence of tampering. 

By comparison, 95 percent of the county’s gas-powered vehicles passed their emissions tests and only 0.5 percent had evidence of tampering. 

“The diesel tamper rate is 15 times higher than the gasoline tamper rate. I’d say that’s quite a large difference,” said Scott Braeden, Environmental Health program manager for the Weber-Morgan Health Department. “It shows the program was needed to help identify the gross polluters in our community. We’re going to continue to work to bring those vehicles into compliance.”

HB 171 will help sharpen that authority. Law enforcement and health officials are supposed to work in tandem to help reign in coal-rolling. But last year, of 233 smoking vehicle complaints the Weber-Morgan Health Department received, only one came from law enforcement. The bill would make it mandatory for police and highway patrol to report these vehicles back to the counties. 

The bill would also deter tampering through fines. Any diesel from 2008 and before that is found blowing visible emissions when it’s not cold or towing a heavy load will be fined $100 for the first offense. The Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy, and Technology Committee has since modified the fine for a second offense, knocking it from $500 to $250.

“The goal with the $500 fine was, hopefully nobody is going to get to that, and if they are, they probably should have their driver's license revoked; that’s just my opinion,” said the bill sponsor, Rep. Angela Romero, while presenting this week in the Senate committee.  

The rule would only apply to counties in non-attainment for federal air quality standards. The bill now awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

Despite the attention diesel emissions tampering is getting in Utah and nationwide, Schaeffer with the Diesel Technology Forum said it’s an isolated practice among a limited number of enthusiasts. 

“I think there’s a myth about black smoke and power,” he said. “Folks seeing visible exhaust might symbolize something about their vehicle in terms of capability and power.”

Attitudes, however, are shifting.

“My personal take on it is the word is out,” Schaeffer said. “People recognize now this is a bad idea. It was funny for a while on the internet, but there are ramifications. I think that’s a good thing.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/LeiaInTheField or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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