Alco Transportation in southwest Detroit had a bunch of big, old semi-trucks.

The company wanted to bring their fleet up to date and in line with federal diesel emissions standards.

But being green isn’t cheap when you’re hauling steel.

“Trucks used to be $110,000 … $120,000,” said Christopher Burcham, who co-owns SteelPro, the umbrella company that markets Alco Transportation, a steel hauling company. “Now it costs $150,000 for a brand new diesel truck. It’s definitely not a cost we wanted to bear.”

What does that increase look like to a trucking guy? “We could buy an old truck for $30,000,” Burcham said.

But over the past couple of years, Alco retired 11 of its trucks and replaced them with new, cleaner diesel rigs, thanks to a $360,000 grant that helped lessen the financial blow of new truck purchases.

Detroit truckers, manufacturers and residents are benefitting from federal efforts to clean up diesel. But the federal program that doles out the money to replace older diesel engines is in its last year of authorization and facing a cut under President Obama’s latest budget proposal.

“There are both environmental and economic incentives to continue investing in the newest diesel technology,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for diesel engines and fuel. 

Tons of air pollutants reduced
Older diesel engines spew a toxic mix of pollutants including nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Such emissions have been linked to respiratory problems and cancer.

In response, federal rules have forced manufacturers to curb diesel engines’ emissions. In 2007 the EPA mandated that heavy-duty vehicles had to reduce harmful pollution by more than 90 percent. Starting in 2010, manufacturers had to further reduce nitrogen oxide emissions.

Manufacturers “are getting engines to near zero emissions,” Schaeffer said.

But fleets are also seeing benefits in their bottom line.

Schaeffer said heavy-duty trucks made after 2010 are about 5 to 8 percent more fuel-efficient than those built prior.

To help companies replace aging diesel equipment, the U.S. started the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act under former President Bush in 2005. The program gives out federal money to help diesel users get newer, cleaner technology.

The diesel cleanups in Detroit are spearheaded by the Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision organization, which has passed out more than $12 million in federal diesel grants to clean up a region that has long struggled with poor air.

The organization estimates that over the past five years upgrades and replacements have reduced regional diesel pollution by about 45,000 tons.

All of this is welcome news, especially in southwest Detroit—a landscape full of heavy industry, traffic and some of the most toxic air in Michigan, said Maggie Striz Calnin, interim program manager for Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision’s Clean Diesel Program.

The industry and traffic in southwest Detroit “is good for the economy and jobs, but the resulting air pollution is significant,” Striz Calnin said. She added the region has a higher percentage of children than other parts of the city and many struggle with asthma.

The rate of asthma for Detroit children is about 30 percent – 3 times the national average, according to the Detroit Alliance for Asthma Awareness.

Cleaner diesels mean healthier communities: A 2013 EPA report to Congress reported that new and upgraded diesel engines have led to 1,400 fewer premature deaths and between $3.4 million and $8.2 million in savings due to fewer hospital visits.

But the future of the helpful federal money is up in the air.

Funding in jeopardy
New diesel technology has spread. About 32 percent of U.S. trucks on the road today are engines made in 2007 or later, and about 15 percent are using the engines made 2011 or after, Schaeffer said.

Michigan is slightly below the national average with about 28 percent of its fleet using 2007 or newer technology, he said.

However, the federal money states use to replace and upgrades fleets has been shrinking. President Obama’s proposed 2016 budget includes just $10 million dollars for the federal Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, a $20 million cut to current funding, Schaeffer said.

During recent federal budget proposals the diesel industry has “gone through this Kabuki dance,” Schaeffer said.

“The past few years the administration has proposed zero and then Congress has restored it to some level,” he said. “So the fact that they didn’t propose cutting it completely this year is something we’ll embrace.”

Both industry and environmental groups in past years have advocated for sustained funding.

In addition the Diesel Emissions Reductions Act is in its final year of authorization. In 2010, President Obama signed legislation that guaranteed some level of funding through 2016.

Nothing is guaranteed beyond that.

“For trucking companies, the number one emissions reduction strategy is getting new equipment,” said Mike Tunnel, director of energy and environmental affairs at American Trucking Associations. “And this program has been a big part of that.”

The program could be the difference when companies decide whether or not to clean their fleet, Tunnel said.

“There are some companies that are able to do this on their own, which is great, but other companies this allows them to do it sooner than they would have,” Tunnel said.

The Detroit Water and Sewage Department, for example, replaced nine older diesels over the past two years with about 18 percent of the costs covered by EPA grants, said Kelly Jezierski, director, energy storage at Detroit nonprofit NextEnergy, which helped the department secure the grants. 

The savings from federal money meant almost two new diesel trucks at no cost for the department, Jezierski said.

Striz Calnin said most companies they reach out to are receptive to the program. “They want their fleets up to date and in good shape because it’s good for business, but cost is part of that,” she said.

She said the companies cannot use the funding to grow their fleet. In order to get a new truck or engine, an older one needs to go.

The “only green option”
Diesel still powers the big engines that are the backbone to U.S. commerce.

“It’s the predominant technology in commercial trucking,” Schaeffer said. “It’s unmatched when you look at energy efficiency and performance torque, and is reliable and durable.”

And for companies like Alco, which has trucks that haul an average of 90,000 pounds of steel around Metro Detroit, decreasing emissions is a priority but power is still crucial. 

“We need big engines, a lot of fuel. Lighter duty trucks with better fuel economy can’t cut it for what we do,” Burcham said. “Our only green option was to replace the old ones.”

This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.