POLITICS: Diesel Delays Cost Lives

For years, scientists used to think that diesel trains were relatively clean - certainly far cleaner, mile for mile, than fume-belching diesel trucks and buses. Recently, though, they discovered that they’d gotten their sums badly wrong, drastically underestimating the amount of fuel the trains used. In fact, they found that the trains produced almost twice as much pollution as had previously been thought.

That’s a big deal: It means that each diesel locomotive, in its lifetime, produces as much pollution as 500 heavy-duty trucks, much of it in the form of highly toxic nitrogen dioxide and carcinogenic soot. Amid the fuss over the new findings, the EPA lurched into action; in 2004, the agency announced plans to extend Clinton-era regulations covering diesel trucks and buses, in a bid to limit emissions from trains and ocean-going ships. “It’s a real priority for us,” promised Bill Wehrum, the agency’s acting chief.

Environmentalists took heart at the agency’s apparent sense of urgency, sat back, and waited. And waited. And waited. The agency’s self-imposed 2006 deadline for finalizing the new rules went past. Still nothing. Finally, amid much fanfare, the agency came up with a draft of the new rules - and gave itself until the end of last year to finalize the regulations. Guess what? We’re still waiting.

In part, the delay can be blamed on an intensive industry lobbying effort; companies like General Electric have pushed for the EPA to weaken its anti-smog rules, claiming that the agency is setting goals that are “unlikely to be achieved." But allowing industry lobbyists to stall the diesel rules is misguided, even on economic grounds: According to the EPA, reducing emissions from trains and ships would bring upwards of $70 billion in health and environmental benefits by 2030, at a maximum cost of just $4 billion.

In any case, the human cost of delaying diesel regulations is only too clear. Collectively, America’s diesel locomotives and ships produce as much pollution as 150 coal-fired power plants - and that has clear and calculable consequences. According to a new analysis by the Environmental Defense, an advocacy group, the EPA’s own figures show that delaying the introduction of the new diesel rules by just a year would cause almost 1,400 premature deaths, some 3,000 heart attacks, and 24,000 asthma attacks.

The EPA needs to stop making excuses and start taking action. These delays are costing lives; and this time around, nobody can claim they didn’t know about the risks involved.