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Support in Congress needed to curb diesel pollution

For many years I have actively campaigned for a healthier environment in Jackson County and throughout Oregon. Because my focus has been largely local, it might seem odd for me to put much stock in what happens in Washington, D.C. But action coming before Congress in the next few weeks could have a dramatic impact on air quality in Jackson County.

When Congress returns to work on March 31 from its Easter recess, negotiators from the House and Senate will meet to work out differences between their respective versions of the budget resolution. This resolution is the blueprint that guides overall spending for each major federal program for the next fiscal year. This is a critical time in setting the overall budget for the next biennium, which will be important for many programs in Oregon.

One program that I am particularly concerned about is the National Clean Diesel Campaign, an Environmental Protection Agency initiative that Congress first funded last year. This program could have a direct impact on the quality of the air we breathe in Jackson County.

In the past 30 years in Jackson County, we have made great progress in reducing air pollution, but health concerns still remain. For example, the very small particulate matter released during diesel combustion contributes to the four leading causes of death in Oregon — heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory disease. Diesel particulates contain 40 dangerous air toxics, including benzene and formaldehyde. Diesel particulate matter in Jackson and 24 other counties exceeds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's health benchmarks.

Burning cleaner fuels like biodiesel and ultra-low sulfur diesel can make a difference immediately. So can changing older diesel engines for newer models. But diesel engines are so well built that they run efficiently for many years. For older diesel engines that are still good workhorses, the best solution is to retrofit them with emissions-cleaning devices. Federal dollars combined with state incentives could help diesel owners retrofit their engines. The conversion is very cost-effective from a public health perspective. A high-end retrofit costs about $8,000 per engine, and the payback is nearly $13,000 annually in reduced health and environmental costs.

Federal funding is also benefiting Cascade Sierra Solutions, a unique nonprofit organization dedicated to saving fuel and reducing emissions from heavy-duty diesel engines along the I-5 corridor. This program has already helped truckers avoid buying nearly 2.5 million gallons of diesel, which is very helpful to the industry's pocketbook. Just Friday, the Mail Tribune reported in "Diesel squeeze" how fuel costs are exceeding labor costs and independent drivers are struggling to survive.

Here in Southern Oregon, Rogue Disposal and Recycling, the city of Medford, Jackson County and the city of Ashland have used federal dollars to retrofit nearly 100 vehicles. That is a great start, but only a start.

That is where action in Congress takes on local significance. The amount of money Congress agrees to appropriate in 2009 and 2010 could increase the money available for environmental programs, including continuing the National Clean Diesel Campaign. Among other things, the program makes money available to states that establish programs to decrease diesel emissions.

Last year Oregon did just that. At the urging of the Oregon Environmental Council, the American Lung Association, Associated General Contractors, the Oregon Trucking Association and the Oregon Farm Bureau, the Legislature created a state fund to assist businesses that retrofit, rebuild or replace their older diesel engines.

This is only one example of the importance of congressional appropriation to protect Oregon's environment, protect our health, and reduce our costs.

Our representatives and senators should insist on the highest possible appropriations levels for stronger environmental programs to provide a cleaner, healthier future for us and our children.

Sue Densmore is a member of the Oregon Progress Board and a board member of the Oregon Environmental Council. She was a founding member of the Medford Urban Renewal Agency.