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Allegheny County's $4M barely dents pollution from diesel sources

| Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 11:13 p.m.

The Allegheny County Health Department has spent nearly $4 million in recent years to reduce diesel vehicle emissions that contain highly toxic chemicals polluting the air, but officials concede the efforts are making a minimal impact.

The county estimates that each year diesel engines in buses, heavy trucks, construction vehicles and tugboats emit 10 tons of soot that contain cancer-causing agents and other dangerous chemicals, said Jim Thompson, who heads the county's air quality program.

“It's a very small number in terms of fine particulate — 10 tons a year is hardly anything — but it's a very toxic 10 tons,” Thompson said at the health department's board meeting on Wednesday.

Thompson said toxic chemicals in 1 ton of diesel emissions pose the same risk as 60 tons of the known carcinogen benzene, which is found in crude oil, gasoline and cigarette smoke.

A 2005 study by Carnegie Mellon University found that diesel particulate in Downtown was the biggest air toxic concern, Thompson said.

In September 2011, the Health Department spent $860,000 to install 40 battery-powered pollution monitors on lampposts and telephone poles Downtown.

The major hurdle in reducing diesel emissions is that although federal regulations reduced particulate emissions from diesels by 90 percent in vehicles built since 2007, most of the diesels on the road are older “legacy” vehicles.

“The problem is diesels are very robust engines,” Thompson said. “And the legacy fleet can last upward of 30 years, and we have some indication of diesels lasting 50 to 60 years.”

A $184 million grant from the Heinz Endowment paid to retrofit vehicles owned by private companies.

The Health Department also has begun a campaign to get school districts and other diesel operators to enact “no idling” polices.

“Clearly we're only addressing a very small percentage of the problem, but it's important because the public is exposed to the type of vehicles we're dealing with such as garbage trucks and school buses,” Thompson said.

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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