Cleaning Up California Construction Equipment

Reducing Pollution from California Construction Equipment

Construction equipment is vital to roadway, bridge, and building projects, but these machines contribute to unhealthy air in our communities and on our playgrounds. Emissions from diesel construction equipment can cause cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular ailments, and even premature death.

Fortunately, cost-effective solutions are available today to clean up construction equipment. In fact, in 2007, the state of California adopted a regulation requiring the dirty diesel pollution from in-use construction equipment to be cleaned up.

The information below summarizes some of the health effects of construction equipment pollution and what can be done to clean it up.

Diesel's Impact on Public Health

Emissions from construction equipment and other diesel vehicles are harmful to our health. Diesel exhaust contains several pollutants that can cause or exacerbate a wide range of serious health problems. These pollutants include:

  • Particulate matter (PM): Also known as soot, these small particles can penetrate deeply into the lungs, causing or aggravating a variety of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses—and can even lead to premature death.
  • Smog-forming pollutants: Smog can damage the respiratory tract, reduce lung function, exacerbate asthma, and aggravate chronic lung diseases. As much as 10 to 20 percent of all summertime respiratory hospital visits and admissions are associated with smog.
  • Toxics: The state of California has classified diesel exhaust and more than 40 compounds in diesel exhaust as toxic air contaminants. Exposure to these chemicals can cause cancer, developmental harm to fetuses, and other serious health and reproductive problems. The California Air Resources Board has estimated that diesel exhaust is responsible for 70 percent of the state's risk of cancer from airborne toxics.

Lagging Engine Standards

Highway truck and bus engine manufacturers have had to meet stricter emission regulations since the late 1980s. Construction and other off-road equipment, however, did not face new PM emission standards until 1996, with some engines unregulated as late as 2003. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally adopted more stringent standards for off-road engines in spring 2004, requiring 90 percent reductions in NOx and PM for most engine sizes. These standards will phase in over a seven-year period starting in 2008.

Although these standards will result in a drastic reduction in pollutants from new engines, full benefits will not be realized until sometime after 2030, when the long-lasting equipment currently in use today is finally retired. There are technology options available to clean up these machines, and in California, new regulations will require their use starting in 2010.  

Underfunded Incentive Programs

California: The Carl Moyer Program
This innovative incentive program, which began in 1998, helps accelerate diesel emission reductions by providing funds to cover the incremental cost of purchasing a cleaner engine or retrofitting an existing engine. UCS analysis finds that the modest costs of pollution cleanup through the Carl Moyer Program are more than offset by the health benefits, with a benefits-to-cost ratio of at least 10-1.

Funding levels for the Carl Moyer Program have varied widely from year to year, and the program has been constantly oversubscribed. In 2004, the California legislature and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger approved a dedicated annual budget of $140 million for the program. This is a big improvement, but the California Air Resources Board estimates that a $300 million annual investment is needed to adequately address California's air pollution crisis.

While construction equipment accounts for 30 percent of diesel PM emissions in California, less than five percent of the Moyer funding was allocated to this sector over the first four years of the program (when it focused on NOx reductions only). Growing recognition of soot's impact on public health led the legislature to expand the program in 2004 to include PM, providing further opportunity for emission reductions.

National: EPA Diesel Cleanup Incentive Programs

In 2005, the Diesel Emission Reduction Act (DERA), enacted by Congress and the president, authorized $1 billion over 5 years to be spent on reducing diesel emissions.  DERA, along with EPA's existing Voluntary Diesel Retrofit Program and Clean School Bus Program, offers financial incentives to accelerate emission reductions from diesel powered engines. These national programs can help clean up today's existing diesel vehicles and equipment, but annual appropriations to fund DERA have been only a fraction of the authorized $200 million per year.

California Regulatory Efforts Regulations can be an extremely effective vehicle for cleaning up diesel equipment while maintaining an even playing field for businesses.  In July 2007, California adopted the first in the nation regulation which requires construction and off-road equipment owners to be responsible for the emissions their equipment emits. Construction equipment fleets will need to meet increasingly stringent emission standards beginning in 2010 and phasing in through 2020.  Other states around the nation now have the opportunity to follow California's lead in accelerating diesel emission reductions from construction equipment by adopting California's standards. For more information onthe regulation, see the UCS fact sheet on California's clean construction regulation (PDF).

How to Reduce Diesel Emissions

There are a number of ways to cost-effectively achieve emissions reductions from construction and other diesel off-road equipment.

  • Refuel. Switching to cleaner fuels such as alternative diesel fuels or ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel can achieve modest reductions in pollutants. These fuels can also facilitate the use of advanced retrofit technologies, resulting in even less pollution.
  • Repower. The body or chassis of some equipment can last through many decades of use, beyond the life of the original engine. Installing a new low-emission engine in an older chassis can allow the machine to run for many more years.
  • Replace. If equipment is old and near the end of its life, replacing it with a new lower-emission model ahead of schedule can result in substantial emission reductions.
  • Rebuild or repair. Emissions gradually increase over the life of an engine. Performing routine maintenance and periodic engine rebuilds can keep emission rates at or near original levels.
  • Reduce idling. Idling equipment is not only polluting, but also a waste of fuel. Limiting idle time can save money by reducing fuel usage and wear and tear on the engine.
  • Retrofit. On equipment that still has some useful life left, engines can be retrofitted with an emission control device. Retrofit technologies are available for a variety of applications.


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to Make Change Happen

We can protect consumers, the climate, and our environment from the growing costs and risks of our oil use —but not without you. Your generous support helps develop science-based solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.