Putting the Brakes on Diesel Pollution from Big Rigs at NJ’s Ports

Can clean-truck tariff help pay to retrofit older, heavy-duty transport, cleaning up air at ports and surrounding communities?

diesel exhaust
The state is taking another stab at dealing with one of the region’s most persistent and threatening problems — unhealthy air pollution from heavy-duty diesel trucks travelling to and from its busiest ports.

With thousands of old diesel trucks using the ports each day, it is an issue long recognized as a health concern by environmental agencies and clean-air advocates, who have been frustrated trying to come up with effective solutions. The state estimates particulate or soot pollution around the port is up to 1,000 times greater than the level that is safe to breathe.

Earlier this year, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey scrapped a plan to replace aging heavy-duty trucks with newer models that did not spew as much soot and particulate pollution into the neighborhoods they traverse, a move that disappointed the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The program was supposed to fund retrofitting vehicles built before 2007, but failed to provide enough money to achieve its aims, leading the Port Authority to drop its planned ban on trucks with older engines at the beginning of next year.

The pollution from the thousands of trucks in and out of the port is blamed by environmental and health authorities for increased asthma rates in children and higher cancer risks for residents living near the ports.

Looking to cut diesel emissions, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee is scheduled to discuss today, but not vote on, a bill that would adopt a program similar to one enacted in California to deal with pollution from port traffic there.

Sponsored by Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), the legislation (S-2507) would pay for retrofitting vehicles through a special clean-truck tariff imposed on vehicles using the port.

In dropping the program, Port Authority officials said they had underestimated the cost to retrofit the trucks. The money allocated to retrofits would only cover about 400 trucks, not the estimated 6,000 or more older vehicles causing the most pollution.

The program ran into stiff opposition from the trucking industry, which had argued there was not enough time or funds to replace the older, polluting trucks. They probably will not be too happy with the latest legislative proposal.

Under Lesniak’s bill, the tariff would range from not less than $100 to no more than $150 for a truck more than eight years old to deliver or receive a shipping container at a port. The money raised by the tariff would be used to subsidize or reimburse the costs of updating trucks coming into the ports of Bayonne, Elizabeth, Jersey City, and Newark.

The measure won backing from environmentalists.

“We desperately need to get older trucks off the road because they are one of the biggest sources of pollution at the ports,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This bill would help eliminate some of those air toxics and hopefully make it easier for people to breathe in New Jersey’s busiest cities.’’