Officials seek to regulate construction emmissions

Posted on Sun, Oct. 05, 2003

At a construction site in north Fort Worth, where they’re building an Eckerd Drugs, black smoke bellows from a huge excavator as it strains to lift a concrete block.

Across the street, where construction crews are preparing to build a Walgreens drugstore, road graders noisily plow the dirt as plumes of exhaust trail them like shadows.

It’s a scene played out daily across the Metroplex, where unbridled growth has unleashed one of the largest sources of air pollution in the region: diesel-powered construction equipment.

But while motorists are subjected each year to the hassle of automobile emissions inspections, and industries such as power plants have spent millions to cut emissions, little regulatory attention has been given to the construction industry.

Efforts are under way to change that.

Government leaders are quietly working on a plan that would allow counties and municipalities to award construction contracts to companies that use the cleanest equipment, even if they’re not the lowest bidder.

“I think we have a duty to give preferential treatment to companies who use cleaner-air vehicles,” Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher said.

The goal is to encourage companies to participate in the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan, a voluntary program that provides $150 million a year in grants to help companies replace old, diesel-powered equipment.

The proposal was devised by the Texas Clean Air Working Group, which comprises government and business leaders who meet once a month in Austin to coordinate efforts to improve air quality. To work, counties and cities would need to adopt resolutions and ordinances making the use of cleaner equipment a criterion for awarding contracts.

Preferential bid treatment would represent a significant strengthening of efforts to reduce emissions from bulldozers, backhoes and road graders. It would also mark one of the most aggressive steps to address the area’s serious air-quality problems, which the American Lung Association estimates has cost the region billions of dollars in health care expenses and lost worker time.

The proposal has drawn the ire of state contractors.

The Associated General Contractors of Texas, which has a membership of more than 900 companies statewide, argues that the effort could kill small and minority-owned companies that can’t afford to replace old equipment, even with help from the state. That, in turn, would reduce competition and increase project costs.

“What they’re proposing is not an incentive effort,” said Art Daniel, president-elect of the Austin-based trade association. “They call it an incentive effort, but in reality it’s a mandate to participate in a voluntary program.”

Criticism also comes from a taxpayers watchdog group upset that the proposal might drive up the cost of taxpayer-funded projects.

“This is absolutely not acceptable to taxpayers,” said Peggy Venable, state director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation in Austin.

She said that before such a proposal is enacted, government leaders need to show the public that it’s beneficial to them to increase costs. If they cannot, then taxpayers are merely “giving a blank check to people with their own agenda.”

Such concerns worry local leaders, who are torn between the need to address the serious health and economic problems caused by ozone, and the desire to avoid creating hardships for area businesses.

“I think we need to be cautious,” said Denton County Judge Mary Horn, a member of the Clean Air Working Group.

Horn, along with the North Central Texas Council of Governments, Greater Dallas Chamber and others, supports the concept of bid preferences for cleaner equipment but not if it harms businesses.

“It shouldn’t be done as a ‘You must comply’ mandate,” said Joe Novoa, chairman of the chamber’s air quality, water and environment committee.

The Texas Emissions Reduction Plan, referred to as TERP, was created by the Legislature in 2001. It was poorly funded until this year, when lawmakers agreed to award $150 million in grants each year, for the next four years, to help companies replace diesel-powered construction equipment. Grant money will also be awarded to replace old engines or retrofit them with pollution controls that reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides.

The program is also open to city buses, garbage trucks and other public equipment.

Ozone forms when nitrogen oxides from automobiles and industry smokestacks react in the sunlight and heat with volatile organic compounds — a group of chemicals emitted from a wide array of sources, including cars and even trees as part of photosynthesis.

State regulators estimate that more than a third of all emissions of nitrogen oxides in the Metroplex originate from “off-road” construction equipment.

“The Legislature passed and funded TERP because it recognized that unless these emissions are significantly reduced, the Houston-Galveston and Dallas-Fort Worth regions cannot attain the one-hour ozone standard,” said John Hall, chairman of a Texas Clean Air Working Group committee developing the bid preference proposal.

So far, construction companies have not been lining up to take the money, although there have been some notable exceptions.

One is Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which is using a $7.6 million TERP grant to retrofit 360 buses with pollution controls that will significantly reduce nitrogen oxide emissions over the life of the vehicle.

But the program has yet to take off, officials say.

For one, the state program does not cover 100 percent of the cost to replace equipment. Instead, it pays only the cost difference between buying a new, standard excavator, for example, and a new excavator with the cleanest-burning engine on the market. For many, it’s simply cheaper to keep the old excavator, which, depending on the size, can cost as much as $400,000.

If the program fails, it could have a significant impact on pollution fighting efforts in the future, said Gregg Cooke, the former EPA Region 6 administrator recently hired by Dallas, Denton and Collin counties to help devise strategies to lower ozone.

“It is unprecedented for the Legislature to spend $150 million a year for four years on an anti-pollution program,” Cooke said. “What do you think the Legislature will do if we can’t make this program work? I think we’re at a real crossroads here. We’ve got to make this program work.”

Daniel, who’s also executive vice president of Boring & Tunneling Co. of America Inc. in Dallas, said the state needs to give the program more time to work. He said that once word gets out that the state is awarding $150 million a year to modernize construction equipment, contractors will participate.

“We support the TERP program. We encourage our members to participate,” he said. “But the program is just starting. Let’s find out if it’s going to work before we start demanding people participate.”