Where there’s a will, there’s a way: Cleaning up diesel-powered equipment

by Celeste Monforton

From the Ground Zero construction site to an expansion of the Los Angeles International Airport, the tide seems to be turning for cleaner diesel engines, particulate filters and low-sulfur fuels.  As Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter Alex Frangos writes: “Instead of belching black smoke, the bucket loaders, cranes and other diesel-power behemoths” are being replaced with less-polluting equipment in order to win community support for massive construction projects in populated areas.  Lawmakers are backing these measures, too.  On November 1, Governor Pataki signed a new law which will reduce particulate pollution emitted from state-owned heavy-duty equipment, noting “we are taking another important step to protect public health and our environment by reducing the amount of harmful pollution from diesel vehicles.”  

The Governor’s press release offered quotes from his legislative colleagues who repeated the benefits of reducing diesel-generated particulate pollution. 

“Diesel exhaust pollution is a clear and present health threat to New Yorkers. It has been linked to premature death, asthma attacks and can damage the lung tissue of children.” (Senator Carl L. Marcellino)

“This new law is an important and timely public health and environmental protection initiative.” (Senator George H. Winner, Jr.)

In the Governor’s 1,600-word news release, the terms “public” and “health” were mentioned a multitude of times.  Similarly, Fragos’ WSJ article devotes a hefty paragraph to the adverse health effects of particulate pollution, even though it appeared in the Marketplace Section (11/8/06, B1) not in a Health or Science section.  The adverse health effects of particulate pollution, which have been recognized by the scientific community for years, have hit the mainstream.  Public health advocates should relish this small victory.

The “can do” quotes from developers and construction managers are in stark contrast to the attitude expressed by some in the US underground mining industry.  For at least eight years, a coalition of mining companies, including FMC Wyoming, Morton International, and Carmeuse North America, have fought regulations to protect underground miners from diesel particulate matter.  Mining companies rely heavily on diesel-powered equipment to extract and transport metal and nonmetal ores, and the underground miners working in these confined environments are the most heavily exposed occupational group.  These underground salt, gold and stone miners are subjected to diesel particulate concentrations that are as much as 10 times higher than workers in other industries, and 100 times higher than levels found in urban areas. 

Nonetheless, the National Mining Association, the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, and some gold mining firms continue to pursue legal challenges against a Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) rule to reduce underground miners’ exposure to diesel particulate matter to an 8-hour time-weighted average of 160 ug/m3.  (EPA’s 24-hour standard for PM2.5 is 65 ug/m3.)   In the recent brief filed in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the mining industry litigants insist that none of the available technologies or any combination of them,

i.e., “DPM filters, alternative fuels, new engines, environmental cabs, or ventilation”…”allows them to comply with the current interim PEL [308 ug/m3], let alone the [160 ug/m3] limit scheduled to take effect in May 2008.” 

Despite the industry’s claim, MSHA’s brief insisted:

“what has been lacking thus far has been industry’s will, not a way to overcome obstacles to implementation” of particulate pollution controls. 

The agency also provided evidence to the Court that the plaintiffs do not try available controls until faced with a deadline.  MSHA offered a litany of examples of responsible mine operators (or perhaps those who would rather invest in health-protective controls for their employees, rather than spending on lawyers and lawsuits) who have taken measures to reduce particulate pollution, including mines that are already meeting the 160 ug/m3 limit.  This fact provides the strongest evidence that MSHA has met is burden of proof for feasibility:

“pointing to technology that is either already in use or has been conceived and is reasonably capable of experimental refinement.” (American Iron & Steel Institute v. OSHA, 939 F.2d 975, 980) 

I wonder if the situation would be different for miners if environmental health activists and lawmakers had a window into the underground world of gold, salt and stone mines.  For now, the under ground seems to be invisible to typical proponents of tough clean air regulations. 

It is satisfying to know that some of our nation’s “visible” workers, like construction workers at the Ground Zero site, will breathe less hazardous air because of clean-diesel technology and controls.  All workers, underground or on the surface, deserve the same health protection.