Environmental Issues: Air

For the past two decades, NRDC's Dump Dirty Diesels Campaign has been a leader in local, state, national, and international efforts to solve the problem of dirty diesel exhaust. By creating groundbreaking programs to reduce community exposure to dirty diesel exhaust while demonstrating clean diesel and alternative fuel solutions in New York and California, successfully advocating for the world's most protective diesel fuel and emission standards in Washington, and working with the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles and local partners to introduce cleaner diesel fuels and vehicles in developing countries around the world, NRDC attorneys, scientists, engineers, and advocates have scored major victories on the path to cleaner air.

NRDC launched its Dump Dirty Diesels Campaign in the summer of 1993, when we decided to clean up the thousands of New York City Transit buses that were belching black smoke up and down New York City streets and avenues.

In the summer of 1995, our first-ever advertising campaign (including a successful First Amendment lawsuit that enabled us to run ads on the backs of NYC Transit buses that read, "Standing behind this bus could be more dangerous than standing in front of it.") highlighted the problem, and was combined with new efforts to introduce cleaner buses powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) in both New York City and Los Angeles.

By the end of the decade, we were working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board on a series of regulatory changes that would lead to the nationwide use of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, new diesel particulate filter technologies, and the cleanest diesel engines in the world.

In 2002, we joined with the United Nations Environment Program, EPA, and an array of industry, environmental, and governmental experts to create the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, which led the successful campaign to eliminate leaded gasoline worldwide and is now bringing the Dump Dirty Diesels message to cities and countries in every region of the world.

The bottom line -- today's diesel vehicles are getting cleaner, and the image of people holding their breath when a smelly, smoky diesel bus goes by is on its way to becoming a thing of the past. We have made tremendous progress in reducing the public health threat created by dirty diesel exhaust -- but we have more work to do.

The Health and Environmental Dangers of Dirty Diesel Exhaust

Dirty diesel exhaust contains a wide mix of pollutants: soot particles, metals, smog-forming gases, carcinogens and many other toxic and hazardous chemicals, all of which are emitted from the engines used in most trucks, buses, ships, trains, farm and construction equipment, generators, and even some cars and power plants.

Particulate pollution is at the core of our concern about dirty diesel engines. Dirty diesel engines are a major source of fine soot particles, which can lodge deep within the lungs, increasing health risks including: emergency room visits, hospital admissions, asthma attacks, cardiopulmonary disease (including heart attack and stroke), respiratory disease, adverse birth outcomes, and premature death (from pneumonia, heart attack, stroke and lung cancer). Dirty diesel exhaust from trucks, buses, construction and heavy equipment, trains, and ships has been linked to almost 40,000 premature deaths in the U.S. every year.

Dirty diesel engines are an environmental hazard, as well as a health hazard. Scientists increasingly point to black carbon as an important global warming pollutant that is accelerating the melting of Arctic ice and mountain glaciers around the world. This is not just a global warming issue, but it is also a growing water issue. In the Himalayas, for example, 400 million people rely on the Himalayan snow and ice pack for their drinking water, and rapid melting there is threatening the long-term stability of this water source. Roughly one-quarter of the world's black carbon comes from dirty diesel engines,so our strategies to reduce diesel particulates will also help reduce the world's black carbon pollution.

Dirty Diesel Pollution is a Problem that We Can Solve

When we started our Dump Dirty Diesels Campaign, there was no such thing as a clean diesel vehicle. In the early years, we advocated for alternative fuels like compressed natural gas because there was no clean diesel-fueled alternative. In 2000, we worked with New York's transit officials to create the Clean-Fuel Bus Program, which included the first large-scale demonstration of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (originally capped at 30 parts-per-million, a 90 percent reduction) and diesel particulate filters in the NYC Transit fleet, as well as hundreds of CNG and hybrid-electric buses. In 2006, an independent study showed that the Clean-Fuel Bus Program reduced fleet-wide particulate emissions by 97 percent from the summer of 1995, when we ran our first ads, to 2006, when the last of the old, dirty diesel buses were replaced or retrofit with cleaner models.

The key to the Clean-Fuel Bus Program was the cleaner diesel fuel, which opened the door to effective diesel particulate filters. These filters eliminate virtually all of the particulate matter and black carbon from diesel combustion, but work only with ultra-low sulfur fuels. Just as we once had to remove lead from gasoline to get effective catalytic converters in cars, we now are removing sulfur from diesel fuel to get effective particulate filters. The Clean-Fuel Bus Program helped lay the foundation for EPA's historic Highway Diesel Rule, signed by President Clinton in January 2001. This rule adapted the New York City Transit model to all new trucks and buses nationwide. Thanks to this rule, since the fall of 2006, all highway diesel fuel sold nationwide has been ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, capped at 15 parts-per-million (ppm). And since 2007, all new truck and bus engines have been equipped with diesel particulate filters, making them more than 90 percent cleaner than the engines they have replaced.

In 2004 and again in 2008, the EPA expanded this clean diesel approach to other diesel engines, including farm, construction, and industrial engines in 2004's Nonroad Diesel Rule, and to locomotive and marine diesel engines in 2008. Soon, all of these engines will be 90 to 95 percent cleaner than the models they replace.

NRDC Victories Have Saved Lives and Fuel

Cleaning Up Diesel Pollution from All Sectors

Over the last twenty years, NRDC has helped bring clean transit buses to New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington DC, fought for cleaner fuels, spearheaded groundbreaking clean port strategies, won victories that have retired tens of thousands of polluting and unsafe school buses, increased the use of alternative fuel vehicles, pioneered clean construction programs, and advanced emission standards for dramatically cleaner diesel engines.

Clean Fuels Around the World

Our work with the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles has led dozens of countries to adopt ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel as their long-term policy goal. In Delhi, Hong Kong, Mexico City and other large cities, ultra-low sulfur fuel is now available, and early adopters of national ULSD programs include Costa Rica, Morocco, Tunisia, and Chile. Working with our PCFV partners, we are now exploring new strategies to accelerate the clean-up of dirty diesel pollution throughout the developing world.

Forcing Clean Up of the Shipping Sector

NRDC has advocated at the international level to reduce sulfur levels in the bunker fuel used by the ships bringing goods to all U.S. ports. In 2010, NRDC joined the U.S. government's delegation to the International Maritime Organization, and helped convince the IMO to create an "Emissions Control Area" around the U.S. coastline that will bring cleaner ships to U.S. ports. Starting in 2015, all ships operating within 200 miles of U.S. coasts will use cleaner fuel has 97 percent less sulfur than today's dirty bunker fuel and use emission-cutting technologies to cut sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides. Implementing this program will prevent 14,000 premature deaths and $110 billion in health costs annually by 2020.

In addition to cleaning up shipping fuel, we have been a leader on clean freight, using a full suite of legal and policy tools to clean up the largest toxic hotspots around the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, as well as major diesel cargo centers in other regions including New York and New Jersey, San Francisco Bay Area, Midwest, Gulf Coast and Pacific Northwest. NRDC spearheaded the creation of the first "green container terminal" at the Port of Los Angeles, which utilizes shoreside power for ships and alternative fuel yard equipment. NRDC's efforts to reduce port generated air pollution also led to the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach's landmark Clean Air Action Plan and award-winning Clean Truck Programs.

National Regulations to Clean Up Thousands of Diesel Vehicles

NRDC's advocacy has been a crucial component of a series of EPA victories that are bringing the world's cleanest diesel engines to communities throughout the country. New EPA rules to clean trucks and buses (adopted in 2001), construction and other non-road diesel engines (2004), and locomotives and marine diesel engines (2008) are resulting in new diesel engines that are dramatically cleaner than their predecessors. When all of the nation's older, dirty diesels have been replaced by new engines that meet EPA's newest standards (estimated to be achieved in 2030), we will eliminate almost 26,000 premature deaths every year. Plus, cleaner ships will be using our ports, thanks to an International Maritime Organization program that NRDC helped secure, which will prevent an additional 14,000 premature deaths in the U.S. annually by 2020.

Protecting 30 Million Californians from Toxic Diesel Pollution

In California, we have worked to develop a set of diesel clean up measures that have cut diesel soot levels in half, saved thousands of lives due to reduced pollution and have saved five billion gallons of diesel fuel. The measures require cleaner diesel fuel, and exhaust controls through various upgrades to the current fleet of trucks, buses, equipment and ships. At left, a resident of West Oakland learns how to use an air monitor to track diesel pollution.

Cities Leading the Way on Diesel Clean Up

NRDC has started many of our diesel clean-up programs in cities before launching broader efforts. In New York City, we spearheaded successful efforts to clean up transit buses, construction equipment, public vehicles, and heating oil. Our work to clean up transit buses has also spanned San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. We have also succeeded in bringing clean construction policies to San Francisco and Los Angeles in addition to New York City.

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last revised 2/22/2012

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