Clearing the air

Diesel controls: New rules promise major pollution reduction, healthier atmosphere for nation.

May 18, 2000

THE NATION should breathe easier now that the federal government has finally decided to crack down on air pollution from diesel trucks and buses.

The dirty smoke belching from those large vehicles has been evident for years, even as the government continued to tighten tailpipe emissions from automobiles.

New rules announced by the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday would slash heavy-duty diesel pollutants by more than 90 percent over 10 years, reducing smog and soot that raise the toll of cancer and asthma. State air-quality officials tie diesel pollutants to 125,000 deaths and a million respiratory ailments a year.

Key to the pollution-control plan will be cutting the sulfur content of diesel fuel by 97 percent over 10 years. Low-sulfur fuel is needed to allow new anti-pollution devices on trucks and buses to work, cutting soot and smog-causing nitrogen oxides.

A similar step was taken 25 years ago in removing lead from gasoline, so that lead-intolerant catalytic converters could be installed on autos.

Cutting sulfur will also reduce much of the harmful particulate matter, or soot, from diesel engine exhausts. (Just as removing lead in gasoline also eliminated a major air pollutant.)

Authorities long ignored dirty diesels, downplaying their impact on human health and recognizing their high fuel-economy. But evidence of soot-linked respiratory damage (and the toxic content of diesel exhaust) has been mounting. Maryland last year began inspections of diesels to force dirtier-burning trucks off the road.

While the new EPA rules could be effective this year, the real impact will be farther down the highway. Cleaner fuel won't be required until 2006; manufacturers will phase in new engines between 2007 and 2010. Diesel fuel will cost more and refiners warn of shortages. But cleaner air is an advantage that we all can see.

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