On the outskirts of Davis, in the town of Dixon, the sign for The Punjabi Dhaba stands out among the taco stops, pizza parlors, and fast food drive-throughs. Sikander Grewal, owner of the restaurant, attributes the success of his business to its location by Interstate 80—the trucker’s ribbon. “Most of my customers are South Asian truck drivers who’ve heard of the restaurant or they see the sign from the freeway. They come in for some chai on the way to the Oakland port. Though, lately, I’ve been losing  truckers as customers. A lot of these container people are going out of business in Woodland, Oakland, and Yuba City.” It is a combination of the state of the economy and government regulations that have eaten into trucking profit margins. Drivers work between 11 and 14 hours a day, earn hourly wages, face highest on-the-job fatality rates, have little or no health insurance, while being relentlessly exposed to toxic fumes and smog.

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Counting the Cost

California has one of the most stringent regulations controlling diesel emissions. On December 12, 2008, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) voted on a regulation to reduce emissions from existing on-road heavy-duty diesel vehicles, which would require older trucks be retrofitted with controls to reduce much of the harmful soot air pollution produced by diesel engines. The cost of retrofitting trucks with the newer diesel emission control engines is between $15,000 and $25,000 and the fine for non-compliance could be a hefty $10,000 per day. Can truckers stay in business with this kind of cost for both compliance and non-compliance?

Jerry Singh calls the regulations unfair and “a way for the government to make money.” Singh used to own a gas station but, with the rise in gas prices and the low margins, he has had to move to the transportation business. Out of the three trucks he owns, only one meets CARB’s standards.

But time is running out for Singh. He realizes that, by 2014, regulatory measures will become more stringent. “And it doesn’t stop there,” Singh complains. “It’s a recurring expenditure.” By 2021 all trucks need to be upgraded again to 2010 emission configurations.

Randy Bains of Bains Enterprises owns a fleet of trucks. He agrees that we all need to breathe clean air and yes, diesel exhaust contains harmful Particulate Matter (PM) or toxic soot. But the trucking industry has suffered tremendous losses since the regulations, he argues. A few years ago, Bains had 50 trucks. Due to capital investment on new filters and upgrades in engines and emission technology his fleet is down to 16.

The trucks smoke a lot less and he can see how it’s making a difference. Nevertheless, the financial load has been heavy. “It costs me close to 1.1 million dollars for a new, clean truck. I need to justify that kind of investment somehow in this economy.”

In an April 22, 2010 press release, CARB chairman Mary D. Nichols conceded, “We fully recognize that the economy has had an effect on the owners and operators of big rigs, buses and construction equipment,” adding, “we are committed to taking those impacts into consideration for our diesel clean-up program.”

Funding the Fleet

Bains acknowledges that there are government grants for truck retrofits. Earlier this year, a $22 million grant for truck retrofits was disbursed to about 800 truckers leaving over 1,200 applicants without funding. Bains is cynical about the process. “The money will never reach smaller companies like mine,” he states. “I applied for a grant. Never got it.” Bains may be right. It could be that the smaller companies are so focused on surviving that they may not have the manpower to chase grants.

Such is not the case with Gurrattans Kalkat, an independent trucker from Stockton. Kalkat uses his one truck to transport goods from the Oakland rail yard to the port, a distance so short that it takes under 10 minutes to reach. Kalkat received a grant to retrofit his truck and he thinks that the regulations have definitely improved air quality in Oakland. On the door of his truck is a mosaic of stickers that he proudly points to: “Verified Clean Diesel Vehicle,” “Port of Oakland Truck Retrofit Program,” “Drayage Truck Registry,” “Bay Area Air Quality Management District Funding,” and the “CMTP Secure Truck Enrollment Program.” Kalkat is an independent trucker and would not have been able to afford the cost of retrofitting if not for the grant. “Business is slow,” he says “But that’s because of the economy. Look at us, four of us, standing here waiting for work. But I don’t see as much smog anymore. It’s healthier now, because of the regulations.”

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Unfair Evasive Practices

For Bains it would all be worthwhile if every trucking company in California was impacted similarly, but he fears that there are ways to appear as though the regulations are being met while evading the heavy overlay of investment. Since Jan 1, 2010, trucks that do not meet CARB’s emission specifications are not permitted to service the Oakland Port. However, it is possible for a fleet owner to only send his one compliant truck to the port and keep his other trucks for other commercial runs. It is possible to get a Temporary Non-Compliance Pass, no more than one pass for any one truck. But what about a fleet owner with twenty trucks, who can then possibly get twenty Non-Compliance passes? The information about these non-compliant trucks is sent to CARB for “enforcement action.”

In a conference call with Paul  Jacobs, Chief of the Mobile Source Enforcement branch of CARB, I learned that trucks violating California regulations are cited, penalized, and their vehicle registrations blocked. (Since my questions on non-compliance enforcement, all references to Non-Compliance passes on the CARB website have been highlighted in red, including this one: “Temporary Non-Compliance Passes will not be issued beyond December 31, 2010.”)

Jerry Singh expressed frustration over what he considers an unfair advantage that out-of-state truckers have over California drivers and fleet owners. “A truck from Reno doesn’t have the same financial burdens we Californians have,” says Singh, though Jacobs refutes that claim, stating, “we do enforce our regulations against out of state trucks as authorized under the authority granted to us under California law (statutory and regulatory).” Jacobs adds that out of state enforcement could extend to contacting the Attorney General’s office and preparing a preliminary injunction against the violating carrier, though this might be a trifle more difficult and time intensive to implement.

Clean Bill of Health

Kalkat has no health insurance and he says he can ill afford to buy any. Gurmukh Singh, another trucker from Stockton, agrees with Kalkat. With the new health care reform they will be expected to buy health insurance or pay a penalty of $95 starting in 2014. “I still have a few more years,” says Gurmukh Singh, “Right now, we’re all healthy. No real problems except for occasional backaches.” They both don’t exercise and Kalkat smiles at the suggestion of a healthy diet. It is estimated that 66% of truckers don’t have health insurance.

CARB has estimated that particulate pollution from diesel exhaust is responsible for 9,200 premature deaths per year in California. Much has been written about the increased prevalence of asthma and cancer in Oakland, near the port, where the most amount of pollution occurs.

Bains, who works in Fairfield, indicates that he has few health issues that can be pinned on truck diesel exhaust and Jerry Singh confirms that he too has no major health fallouts, despite long hours spent on the road.

Truck driver Balvir Singh from Yuba City is not allowed into the port with his older vehicle, so he’s able to make local deliveries only. He says that it’s not feasible for him to invest in health insurance. The couple of times he’s needed a doctor, he’s had to pay $40 each visit. “Luckily I don’t need to see the doctor often.”

A Waiting Game

On a Friday morning at the Port of Oakland, trucks stand in line, waiting to get to the dock. “It could be anywhere between 30 minutes to about three hours that we have to wait,” says Kalkat, taking it in stride. Each truck hour at the Oakland port is an hour of lost revenue. “That’s two to three hours that we have to pay our drivers, while they wait in line, breathing toxic fumes,” says Bains.

You might think that this wait time has nothing to do with state regulations on emissions yet, it does. While in line, the more conscientious drivers, like Kalkat and Gurcharan Singh, turn off their engines promptly, but there are some who have their engines running. On the CARB website, the following idling regulation is stipulated: “A driver of a diesel-fueled motor vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) greater than 10,000 pounds is prohibited from idling the vehicle’s primary engine for more than 5 minutes at any location.” Kalkat shrugs when I ask him about the idling stipulation. “There’s a sign on 7th street that says, ‘no idling.’ What can we do?” he asks, “If the line is moving slowly our engines have to be fired up.” It doesn’t look like this problem has a solution unless the Port of Oakland finds a way to speed up the process of handling each truck. This would further reduce emissions, protect public health and allow more deliveries to occur, increasing the profit margins for the financially beleaguered trucking industry.

In the words of Oakland Tribune reporters, Christine Cordero and Rome Aloise, “it is a mistake to cast this problem as a conflict between the truck drivers struggling to protect their livelihoods versus government regulators protecting residents who want clean air for their kids to breathe.” Most South Asian truck drivers and owners, it appears, agree with the basic premise of the regulations and those who’ve received retrofitting grants appreciate CARB’s policies more than those who haven’t. Yes, truckers need to be able to earn a decent living, but a balance needs to be struck between financial health and physical wellbeing. It would do no one any good if there were a sign that said, “Please Refrain from Breathing.”

The above research was made possible by a environmental health grant fromNew America Media.

Jaya Padmanabhan is a prize-winning fiction writer.

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