Environmental advocates petitioned the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission Friday for new regulations on diesel emissions from construction site vehicles and other non-road sources.

The petition is from 21 groups, including the nonprofits Neighbors for Clean Air, Northwest Environmental Defense Center and Green Energy Institute at Lewis & Clark Law School. It calls for a cap on toxic diesel emissions from construction sites, distribution centers, and rail yards. It also seeks a new air pollution rule to regulate toxic diesel emissions from those sources.

The view from the BNSF Railway rail yard in Spokane.

The view from the BNSF Railway rail yard in Spokane.

Courtney Flatt

“When these poorly-regulated mobile sources aggregate at warehouses, construction sites, and other locations, they release large amounts of harmful black carbon, particulate matter, and toxic pollution,” Northwest Environmental Defense Center Mark Riskedahl said in an emailed statement.

Advocates for Neighbors for Clean Air said diesel pollution is present “at unhealthy levels throughout the state.”

In 2010, the Department of Environmental Quality completed a Portland Air Toxics Solutions project that was intended to help identify and address the leading causes of toxic air emissions in the Portland metro area. It estimated that 65% of toxic diesel emissions come from non-road sources. If trains and commercial boats are included, that figure rises to 73%. 

“I think honestly the single biggest diesel elephant in our room are these construction sites. I don’t think people have any idea how significant, how high the levels of these diesel pollution are, especially at certain phases of construction,” executive director for Neighbors for Clean Air Mary Peveto said.

This year lawmakers passed House Bill 2007 in an effort to reduce toxic diesel emissions. The bill regulates diesel trucks in the Portland metro area and requires truck owners to replace diesel engines from before 2011 with newer models by 2025.

But Peveto said trucks are the source of only about 15% of toxic diesel emissions in the Portland metro area. The new rule would help regulate the toxic diesel emissions found in non-road sources that are not being addressed by the new law.

“This allows us to really get at that bigger chunk of the diesel emissions problem in the Portland metro area that’s caused by the off-road emissions from construction equipment,” Peveto said. “It’s caused by rail yards, locomotives that are parked and idling at rail yards, and even marine terminals and other hubs like distribution centers that attract a lot of mobile emissions to one place.”

The Department of Environmental Quality said it will give serious attention to the clean-air advocates’ petition.

“We understand the concerns the petition seeks to address and have been looking at these concepts as potential tools for future efforts to reduce a variety of emissions,” DEQ director Richard Whitman said in a statement. “Diesel emissions, whether on the roads or at construction projects, remain a top source of concern for DEQ and Oregonians.”

The DEQ has commissioned a new non-road diesel emissions inventory that is being conducted by a third-party contractor. The results are expected to be available by the end of March.

The Environmental Quality Commission has 90 days to decide whether the state should move forward on the rule.