KATU: Despite its 'green' reputation, Oregon lags when it comes to cleaning up diesel pollution
Author: by Brian Wood, KATU News
Posted: February 11, 2019

Read KATU's original story.

Multnomah County is among the worst counties in the nation for exposure to airborne diesel exhaust, according to statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency. Studies show that kind of pollution goes deeper into our lungs, putting people more at risk of serious health problems. But, despite a reputation for being environmentally progressive, Oregon is falling behind its neighbors when it comes to diesel pollution.

Portland State University professor Linda George is studying diesel air pollution in the area. On a random Thursday morning, her sensors in southwest Portland registered black carbon at an alarming level.

“It is 1,400 nanograms and the health benchmark for Oregon is 100. For California it is three,” George said. What’s more, those tiny black bits are different than other types of air pollution George said. “Those particles, diesel particulate matter, are small particles that get into your lungs and pass into the brain. And they are a known carcinogen.”

Jennifer Coleman, Health Outreach Director for the Oregon Environmental Council said, “Diesel exhaust is robbing kids of their full potential for a lifetime of health. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Unlike gas-powered cars, the federal government did not mandate stricter pollution controls on new, heavy diesel truck engines until 2007. Because diesel engines can last for decades, millions of older, more polluting rigs remain on the road.

Except, in California. Our neighbor to the south is banning the older trucks. By the year 2023 no heavy truck built before 2010 will be allowed on California roads.

In Washington, the state has offered millions of dollars in incentives to encourage owners of the older trucks to retrofit or replace them.

That’s put Oregon in a squeeze.

“Oregon is so far behind our neighboring states that we’ve become a dumping ground for these older diesel engines,” says Mary Peveto with Neighbors for Clean Air. She and others say instead of replacing or retrofitting the older diesel engines, it is easier and cheaper for heavy truck owners in California to sell the more polluting rigs in Oregon where there are no such standards.

Using Oregon Department of Transportation numbers, KATU researched sales of those older, California trucks in Oregon. In 2014, 13 were sold. In 2015, that number more than quadrupled to 59. Thirty-four were sold in 2016, 27 in 2017 and 28 in 2018.

Mary Peveto said something needs to be done. “It is not controlled well by federal regulation or even state regulations," she said.

Senator Michael Dembrow, (D) Portland, agrees.

“Multnomah County, counter to what most people think, has a real problem with air quality," he said.

Sen. Dembrow has been working on this issue for years and expects some action in the current legislation session. He says lawmakers will be looking at more financial help for truck owners to replace or retrofit the older rigs. And, lawmakers will also consider a phased-in ban on the sales of the older, more polluting trucks in Oregon.

“That’s where I want to end up. Absolutely. We need to take action on that right away,” Dembrow said.

The state does have some money to spend – about $72.9 million . That money comes from the settlement with Volkswagen over the company’s fraudulent emissions scandal. Between $18 million and $22 million have already been set aside to replace about 450 older diesel school buses in Oregon How the remaining money will be spent is up to the legislature.