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Assembly bill would allow state to regulate Mexico diesel trucks

By Michael Gardner
June 22, 2004

LENNY IGNELZI / Associated Press
Trucks entered the United States at the Otay Mesa border crossing this month.

SACRAMENTO – Alarmed that a Supreme Court decision could significantly erode gains in cleaning the air, a California lawmaker introduced legislation yesterday that would protect the state's right to regulate soot-spewing diesel trucks from Mexico.

The legislation, Assembly Bill 1009, would require that all trucks crossing into California meet federal emission standards set for their model years. The newer the model, the tougher the requirements.

The bill's intent is sketched out in only one paragraph, but it could have broad implications along the border, at ports and in polluted cities across Southern California.

The Supreme Court this month ruled that U.S. roads must be opened to long-haul Mexican carriers under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Labor unions, environmentalists and some states had fought the provision, arguing that concerns over safety, traffic and smog were still unanswered. About 1,000 trucking interests have applied for long-haul licenses.

The ruling unsettled state environmentalists and health advocates who fear that it may be interpreted as pre-empting existing soot controls just as the state braces for an onslaught of diesel trucks from Mexico.

They found an ally in Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, an Agoura Hills Democrat who earned praise and notoriety for carrying legislation to regulate sport utility vehicles that emit greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

"We have worked hard in California to reduce harmful air emissions, particularly from heavy-duty vehicles, and we must do what we can to ensure that trade agreements do not result in degradation of air quality," Pavley said.

Southern California air quality regulators estimate that unchecked Mexican trucks could emit 50 tons of harmful particulate matter a day, adding to the 300 tons already blanketing the region on a daily basis.

There are disputes over the extent of the threat. Mexican trucks are generally older than California's fleet and many run on dirtier fuel. However, just as many fill up with diesel produced by Pemex, the national company, which exceeds U.S. standards.

The California Air Resources Board carries out inspections at CHP weigh stations, ports and border crossings of all trucks regardless of origin. There already is some limited access of Mexican trucks to the United States, but carriers are confined to a relatively small area.

One of six California-based trucks flunk. The failure rate for Mexican trucks is expected to be twice that, according to air board figures.

Violators are fined $800 the first time, but they get back $500 if the problem is fixed within 45 days. A second violation carries an $1,800 fine and no refund. The truck is confiscated if there is a third offense and not returned unless repairs are made.

"In Southern California, we can't afford added pollution," said Jerry Martin, an air board spokesman.

Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal, a Long Beach Democrat who has pushed through legislation targeting diesel truck pollution around ports, said the state cannot abandon its commitment to clean air regardless of NAFTA.

"We can't lower the bar," Lowenthal said. "We can't make the air dirtier than it is."

California subsidizes truck owners who want to retrofit engines or trade in for new rigs. Dirtier diesel will be replaced with low-sulfur fuel starting in 2006.

John White, an environmental lobbyist who helped craft the legislative proposal, said the state must tread carefully to avoid crossing the court decision, federal commerce laws and international trade agreements.

"There are some serious constraints on the state's authority," he said.

The goal is to avoid imposing state-only requirements. Instead, federal standards should be followed by all trucks, whether registered in other states, Mexico or Canada, he said.

"The key is you just can't single out NAFTA trucks," White said.


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