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Published: Saturday, 9/7/2002

The dirt on diesel exhaust

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concluded what many Americans already understand intuitively: a lifetime of breathing diesel exhaust fumes can make you sick - or dead.

After evaluating diesel-engine emissions since the 1970s, the EPA says the evidence is “persuasive” that long-term exposure causes lung cancer and contributes in the short-term to a variety of respiratory illnesses such as asthma and acute bronchitis.

This is a health assessment crucial to most Americans because diesel exhaust is almost impossible for anyone to avoid in our society. It comes from engines in trucks, buses, and cars on streets and highways, tractors on farms, locomotives on railroads, construction equipment at building sites, and boats on our waterways.

To counter the harmful effects, the EPA proposed, in 2000, a tough set of emission regulations that aim to reduce lung-clogging particulate matter by 90 percent and smog-producing nitrogen oxides by 95 percent from today's levels by 2007.

The health impact of the regulations, the agency says, will be like taking 13 million of the 14 million diesel trucks off the nation's roads, preventing some 8,300 premature deaths and 360,000 asthma attacks each year.

The regulations, fought strenuously by engine manufacturers and fuel producers, were upheld by a federal appeals court in May. The Bush Administration pledged to enforce the standards, a surprising stand by a White House that has moved to roll back environmental protection on so many fronts.

But lurking in the background is an administration plan that would dilute the effectiveness of the diesel regulations. It's usually referred to as “cap and trade,” in which a nationwide limit on emissions for vehicles and machinery would be set and companies could buy or trade emissions credits under a market-based system.

Designed by corporate bean counters with little regard for health effects, “cap and trade” would involve one set of comparatively lenient emission standards for off-road diesel machinery and another tougher set for cars, trucks, and buses. Unfortunately, off-road diesels produce far more emissions than the on-road variety, so the practical effect would be to spread pollution around rather than clean up our air uniformly.

This is the same disingenuous strategy the administration is trying to peddle as a solution to harmful emissions from coal-burning power plants, and Congress should reject it. The health of the public is more important.

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