Ambitious Program to Reduce Diesel Pollution Racks Up One Retrofit

State audit reveals traffic slowed to a crawl in diesel retrofit program, though moving along in others

A much-touted pilot program to reduce harmful pollution from off-road construction vehicles only has retrofitted one of hundreds of pieces of equipment targeted for upgrades, according to the Office of the State Auditor.

The audit of a range of programs initiated by the state Department of Environmental Protection found, by and large, a diesel retrofit program targeting school buses, waste-hauling vehicles, and commercial buses was working reasonably well.

But the eight-page audit suggested improvements should be made to the verification of the retrofitted off-road equipment, which, according to the governor’s office, accounts for one-third of toxic mobile source diesel particulate emissions in New Jersey.

In a press release issued by his office in November 2011, Gov. Chris Christie called the cumulative effects of multiple sources of pollution, including diesel exhaust, a major health impact on communities across the state.

“With this executive order, we’re focused on reducing diesel emissions to help resolve this serious public health issue that disproportionately affects residents in these areas [congested urban centers],’’ Christie said in an executive order issued in April 2011, which targeted 175 piece of equipment within three years.

The Christie administration issued the press release at a time when it was under fire from environmentalists over pulling out of a regional initiative to curb greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global climate change. It also was criticized for adopting an Energy Master Plan that environmentalists claimed curbed the state’s renewable energy goals.

As of December 2011, according to the audit, however, only one of 500 off-road pieces of equipment had been retrofitted. In addition, the audit said there are no standards in place to measure the reduction in emissions, urging the agency to visually verify the installations.

Under Christie’s executive order, the first phase of the program would focus on New Jersey Department of Transportation projects within urban areas, targeting a 85 percent reduction in particulate matter emissions.

The program is financed by $2.5 million in DEP grants for state and federal air quality mitigation funds. Overall, the retrofit program, originally initiated by a 2005 law passed by the Legislature, has spent $26.4 million in retrofitting diesel vehicles.

“We found the program is utilizing the recommended devices installed by state approved contractors and were meeting the updated emissions standards,’’ the audit found.

However, the audit also found a one-time inspection compliance form required for vehicles that were retrofitted had not been submitted for 4,456 of the vehicles that were retrofitted.

The audit also proposed that the state’s diesel retrofit program unit continue to report nonreporting vehicle owners to the compliance and enforcement unit.

The audit also recommended that the department should be more aggressive in its collection efforts for the $2.8 million in outstanding debt for licenses, permits, and other fee types associated with the program.

The department concurred with the findings and recommendations of the audit.