A Senate proposal would allow heavy-duty vehicles, such as eighteen-wheelers, to idle indefinitely. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force
A Senate proposal would allow heavy-duty vehicles, such as eighteen-wheelers, to idle indefinitely. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

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Part of a measure that has passed the Senate would allow diesel trucks to idle on and on and on.

By Gabe Rivin

In January, Laura Kelley filed a complaint with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Kelley, a mother of 2-year-old twins, was upset to find a diesel truck idling all day near her children’s day-care center at Durham’s First Presbyterian Church.

A Senate proposal would allow heavy-duty vehicles, such as 18-wheelers, to idle indefinitely. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

“It’s right by their playground,” she said. “You don’t really want a big diesel truck out there.”

Under current state regulations, Kelley has legal grounds to complain. Most large vehicles – those weighing more than 10,001 pounds – cannot idle for more than five consecutive minutes every hour.

But those rules could change if a bill approved by the Senate becomes law. The bill, HB 765, would repeal the state’s idling rules, leaving residents such as Kelley with fewer options to contest these sources of air pollution.

Idled vehicles can release large concentrations of hazardous air pollutants. Those pollutants include fine particulate matter and nitrous oxides that contribute to the formation of smog.

Junfeng Zhang, a professor of environmental health at Duke University, said that diesel pollution is particularly harmful. Epidemiological studies have shown that people living near diesel pollution sources have an increased risk of respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases and cancer, he said.

And though the risk is small from a single, short-term exposure to diesel pollution, some areas have large numbers of heavy-duty trucks, which contributes to health problems over time, Zhang said.

[pullquote_right] Did you know NC Health News is a non-profit? Last year, a third of our funding came from readers. Please consider a donation today! [/pullquote_right]Despite the concerns surrounding idling, DENR offered its support for HB 765 after several unrelated provisions were amended. In a letter to the Senate, the department’s director of legislative affairs wrote that DENR “can support this bill and believes it accomplishes the goal of responsible regulatory reform while facilitating the continued protection of our state’s environmental resources.”

Restrictions without teeth

Passed by the full Senate on July 2, HB 765 is a sprawling regulatory-reform bill. The bill was initially filed as a one-page proposal, one that only dealt with trucks that carry gravel and rocks. But the bill was rewritten in the Senate’s environment committee and grew into a 54-page proposal.

Diesel exhaust contains particulate matter, microscopic particles that can enter humans’ lungs and cause damage. PMs created in diesel exhaust are so small that they are able slip between the cells lining the lung and get into the bloodstream. Photo courtesy U.S. EPA

Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Mocksville), a co-chairman of the Senate’s environment committee, said the idling provision would help truckers who would otherwise damage their engines by turning them on and off. Brock also said the current five-minute limit is too short to be legally enforceable, and that trucking companies already try to limit idling.

“They’re not going to waste money,” he said. “They’re very cost conscious.”

A spokesman for DENR said the idling rules, which went into effect in 2010, were the product of long public discussions that involved the trucking industry and environmental groups.

“We went through quite a stakeholder process in adopting these rules,” said Tom Mather, a spokesman in DENR’s Division of Air Quality.

Mather said DENR enforces the rules by responding to complaints. After receiving a complaint, DENR contacts an accused idler and reminds him or her of the state’s rules.

“What we’re after is getting people to comply with the rules,” Mather said. “We’re not just here to issue penalties and levy fines.”

External pressure

There hasn’t been much complaint-driven work in recent years. Since January 2013, DENR has only received four idling complaints, a department spokeswoman said.

Sen. Andrew Brock said that current idling rules are unenforceable, and that trucking companies already restrict idling. Photo courtesy N.C. General Assembly

Mather also said DENR works to educate the public. Department staff have distributed brochures to trucker organizations, as well as about 2,000 anti-idling signs throughout the state at about 1,000 locations, Mather said.

Additionally, DENR has teamed up with the state’s Department of Public Instruction to reduce school bus idling. This program helped the state win an award in 2014 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Mather said idling can be costly for trucking companies. The idling rules, he said, serve as an external pressure, offering companies a means to enforce their own restrictions on idling.

Still, Mather acknowledged that there are limits in current public policy. In an email, Mather wrote that “the idling rule does not have a lot of teeth and compliance is largely voluntary.”

That was true for Laura Kelley’s complaint. DENR staff shared with North Carolina Health News the letter they sent the contractors Kelley accused of excessive idling. The letter says “unnecessary idling” violates state rules, but it does not warn of any penalties.

Kelley said even after filing the complaint, the diesel truck remained onsite. It continued to idle its engine near the day-care center until a nearby roadwork project was complete.

Kelley said she’d like to see improvements to state rules, not their deletion.

“I would like to see better enforcement of that law,” she said. “If there’s no enforcement at all, that should be better funded, rather than repeal it.”

HB 765 has several other environmental provisions, including:

  • A requirement, proposed in previous legislation, that the Environmental Management Commission stop enforcing certain federal air pollution rules until the commission readopts the rules with a three-fifths vote of approval.
  • A requirement, included in the same above-mentioned piece of legislation, that the EMC not adopt federal air pollution standards for wood heaters, including wood stoves and fireplaces.
  • A reduction in the number of air-quality monitors in the state, an idea that was stricken from a regulatory-reform bill last year.

Because the House and Senate passed different versions of HB 765, the bill normally would have gone to a conference committee, where specially appointed legislators would hash out the bills’ differences. The General Assembly’s website, however, shows that the bill has been referred to the House’s environment committee.

House members are currently comparing the Senate’s version of HB 765 with the House’s own regulatory-reform bill, HB 760. House leaders have not taken an official stance on HB 765, according to Mollie Young, the communications director for House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain).

Rachel Herzog contributed reporting to this story.

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Gabe Rivin

Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...