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A Quick History of NRDC's Dump Dirty Diesels Campaign in New York

Rich Kassel

Posted December 16, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment

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With the launch of NRDC’s New York website, it’s worth looking back on our two decades of “Dumping Dirty Diesels” in New York. 

Back in the summer of 1995, there was no such thing as a “clean diesel.”

That’s when we launched our Dump Dirty Diesels Campaign with this ad on the backs of NYC Transit buses:

 

 1995 bus ad cropped resized 3.jpg 

At that time, there was no such thing as a clean diesel bus. 

Instead, the only clean alternative was a bus fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG)—clean, but much more expensive than diesel.  Plus, converting the city’s network of diesel bus depots would require tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars of infrastructure investments to convert them to CNG.  

Today, we are in a completely different place.

The MTA story has been told many times before, but it bears repeating:

Just as we had to take lead out of gasoline to enable the use of catalytic converters that would make cars dramatically cleaner, we had to take sulfur out of diesel fuel to enable the use of effective pollution-cutting technologies that would clean up our dirty diesel buses and trucks.

Back then, this was an untested approach. There was no such thing as a clean diesel bus.

Ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (the diesel equivalent of unleaded gasoline) did not exist in the commercial market yet, and nobody knew whether the new catalysts and filters would work effectively in the rough-and-tumble of 24/7 transit service in New York City.

But Governor George E. Pataki and the MTA worked closely with NRDC to create the clean-fuel bus program that would test this approach (while also investing in natural gas in case the diesel components didn't work as planned).

The program worked - and it has become the model for clean fleets in New York City, as well as other cities and fleets around the country.

Thanks to the MTA program, we know that a diesel-based approach can be clean without requiring an expensive shift in fuels and fueling infrastructure - a critical need in today's tough fiscal climate. 

In fact, a M.J. Bradley study showed that diesel soot pollution from the NYC Transit fleet has been reduced by 97% since we ran those ads in the summer of 1995, thanks to replacing or retrofitting old diesel clunkers with new buses or engines that use the cleaner fuel and soot filters to cut their emissions.

 MTA PM reductions graph.jpg(An important aside: When the NYC Transit buses showed that the combination of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel and effective soot filters would reduce particulate pollution by more than 90 percent in real-world transit service, it helped lay the technical foundation for EPA's regulatory program that now requires ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel for all trucks and buses, as well as requires soot filters on every new truck and bus engine built or sold in the U.S. since 2007.)

Our work to reduce diesel pollution in New York isn’t done.

Because diesel engines last for decades, polluted cities like New York still need to take steps to accelerate the retirement and retrofitting of the dirty diesels that have years of active service left.

So, NRDC has worked with our colleagues in the New York environmental community to pass important new city and state laws to require “Best Available Retrofit Technologies” on school buses, double-decker tour buses, construction equipment, sanitation trucks, and other publicly-owned or operated diesel vehicles. 

We’ve adapted this work to pass city and state laws that will reduce the sulfur content in heating oil used in New York—a similar and related pollution problem.  

And most recently, we’ve worked with the Port Authority and others to create a program to replace the oldest, dirtiest trucks servicing the port terminals of New York and New Jersey with newer models.  

At the federal level, we’ve worked hard to ensure that EPA’s rules for new diesel engines are the strongest rules in the world, and to create hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funds that have helped state and local governments speed up the pace of diesel clean-up in their communities.

We’ve come a long, long way from those ads on the backs of New York City Transit buses. 

But we’re not done yet.

So we’ll keep working with at the city, state, and federal levels to find new, innovative ways to speed up the clean-up of the remaining dirty diesel vehicles in our midst.

Stay tuned. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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