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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Smoking Gun: The diesel-fuel-burning buses of the Valley Transportation Agency have come under attack by critics who believe the agency should convert to clean-burning natural-gas-powered vehicles, not more diesel.

Fuming Mad

Steve Soriano is fighting a lonely, uphill battle to get Santa Clara County's transportation agency to leave diesel behind

By Dara Colwell

AS STEVE SORIANO SPEAKS, his casual, down-to-earth manner belies a technical passion so thorough that he carries intricate diagrams to explain his points. Dissatisfied with lined paper, Soriano plugs in his slide projector, perched precariously atop dozens of news clips and photocopied notes detailing the Valley Transit Authority's attempts to cut air pollution, and continues his presentation. "This is VTA central right here," he jokes, motioning toward the pile.

Soriano clicks through several slides of hazy hills, fueling stations and Santa Clara Valley's highways nestled under a brown--and all too familiar--layer of smog. The wiry mechanic then freezes on a slide showing a slick, silver tanker

truck in transit. A dense black cloud hangs over it, dancing sluggishly under the telephone wires. Diesel exhaust.

Soriano is one of many individuals, including experts from the American Lung Association, Union of Concerned Scientists, PG&E, Coalition for Clean Air and the Kirsch Foundation, who are concerned with the Valley Transit Authority's current recommendation to use "clean" diesel vehicles in its bus fleet. Their apprehension stems from the California Air Resources Board's mandate, which applies to all transit agencies across the state, to buy buses that burn compressed natural gas or choose those fueled by low-emission diesel. And decision-making time is just around the corner. All of the state's transit authorities must choose--and then stick to--a path by January 31, 2001.

In San Jose, Soriano and his ilk are pushing for the clean-burning natural gas model. But Santa Clara County's Valley Transit Authority, faced with this multibillion-dollar decision, has instead chosen an unrealistic and aggressive strategy: to buy zero-emission buses--an expensive technology still in its infancy--and revamp its diesel fleet.

"It's a big change and they're probably stretched thin like everyone else," Soriano says, halfway through the informal presentation in his darkened den. "The only thing they're not taking into account is the air emissions--a dirty tail pipe has consequences; a clean tail pipe has value."

While the Air Resources Board's ruling has largely accelerated the local debate over diesel, on the national level, diesel fuel has become a contentious issue fraught with contradictory facts and, according to an article in Natural Gas Fuels, enough "plain misinformation to rival a nasty political campaign." "It takes a lot of energy to understand this," Soriano says plainly. But to Soriano and environmentalists alike, what is easy to understand is diesel's toxic history. And in their minds, the Valley Transit Authority's take is myopic. "Alternative fuel technology is here," Soriano says. "It's a no-brainer."

Diesel Doubts

ANYONE CAUGHT BEHIND A diesel bus belching its dark fumes into traffic knows that the exhaust can't be healthy. But the depth of evidence illustrating its health hazards, which range from respiratory problems to premature death, is striking. Diesel exhaust contains hundreds of constituent chemicals, and over 40 of those components--such as benzene, arsenic, dioxins and formaldehyde--are known toxic air contaminants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition to producing ozone-forming nitrogen oxide, one of the main components of urban smog, diesel exhaust is also a major source of tiny, sooty articles called particulates. Particulate matter consists of minute particles, roughly one-seventh the thickness of a human hair, that sponge onto each other and can penetrate into the deepest recesses of the lungs--rather like the aerosol inhalers many asthmatics use.

Diesel engines churn out 100 times more sooty particles compared to gasoline engines and, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which conducted studies in the Los Angeles area, 70 percent of the total cancer risk in the region was attributable to diesel particulate. Yet only two percent of the vehicles on California's roads are diesel.

While the federal EPA and state governments, including California's, have accepted diesel engines as the norm, the repercussions of diesel exhaust have led the state's Air Resources Board to adopt stricter regulations to reduce harmful emissions. With California ranking as one of the nation's worst states for air pollution, the Board decided last February to clean up air quality by focusing on transit buses, whose exhaust spews over congested urban areas. Regulations now require transit authorities to choose one of two compliance paths--either buy natural gas vehicles or diesel, which must meet increasingly tight emission standards over the next few years.

"It's not good enough anymore to just kiss it off and say, 'It's diesel, it's going to be dirty,'" says Richard Varenchik, spokesman for the Air Resources Board in Southern California. "The heart of both of these paths is to reduce emissions to zero."

Eventually, both natural gas and low-emission diesel buses will be phased out, replaced by zero-emission buses powered by electricity and hydrogen fuel cells. The diesel path must arrive at this point by 2008; the alternative fuel (natural gas) path by 2010.

If both roads ultimately lead to the same destination, then what's the furor? "When the [VTA's] clean diesel report came out, it was totally biased towards diesel," says VTA Board member and City Councilmember Linda Lezotte. "It was totally devoid of any real comparison between the two paths and highly favorable toward what VTA staff had already chosen. There was no conclusion to draw except diesel--based on cost, based on emission and based on the effects on the service."

Steve Soriano Exhaustive Study: Steve Soriano held clean paper towels in front of a diesel exhaust pipe and one from a natural gas vehicle, to show the difference in particulate pollution.

Fuel Notions

ON AUGUST 25, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority board of directors held a workshop at the San Jose Hyatt to discuss VTA's clean fuel strategy. At the workshop, attended by representatives from 15 organizations from up and down the state, including the California Energy Commission and Kaiser Hospital, the VTA outlined its desire to opt for the diesel path. Regarding natural gas as a costly interim technology requiring additional training, the VTA said it planned on buying more diesels until 2005, then switching completely to fuel cell buses. This would jump requirements for fuel cell buses by three years--an ambitious plan. "You have to be aggressive in the Bay Area if you're going to venture into these things," says George Barlow, deputy director of maintenance at the VTA. "We think it's do-able."

According to VTA's marketing director, Anne-Catherine Vinickas, the agency's recommendation in favor of diesel was based on several factors: the greater cost of natural gas buses (which average $40,000 more than diesel), the limited availability of funding for training mechanics on the ins and outs of natural gas technology, and the agency's forward drive to incorporate fuel cell technology ahead of schedule. Also, by choosing low-emission diesel, the VTA felt it could attain similar air quality levels while expanding its much-needed service. "We're confident our approach is feasible," Vinickas says. "We're confident with the numbers we've provided."

But according to Michael Kenny, executive officer of the Air Resources Board in Sacramento, those numbers are off--in several areas. In a letter addressed to VTA's general manager, Peter Cipolla, Kenny stated that estimating particulate emissions was somewhat tricky. Engine certification emissions, those numbers based on a lab-run engine, usually show natural gas emissions at a level 50 percent lower than diesel. But data from actual in-use engines, which run in moving buses, shows that diesel buses emit 11 to 22 times more particulates. "Therefore, it is necessary for your particulate analysis to use in-use vehicle-based data," Kenny writes. In their presentation at the Hyatt, VTA staff offered calculations for diesel and natural gas emissions that were virtually one-to-one.

Kenny also wrote of his concern over a number of inconsistencies between the VTA's spreadsheets and its bus purchase plan. "Based on the discussion in your plan," he writes, "attributing the differences to higher costs for natural gas buses is questionable since considerable federal, state, and local funds are available to defray the costs. I am not aware of a single transit agency," he continues, "that has not been able to reduce the incremental cost of alternative fuel buses through incentive funds."

With a $150,000 per bus incentive, up to a maximum of $1 million per year, offered by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, vehicle registration fees, federal grants and partial incentives from Carl Moyer allotments for alternative fuel vehicles, the VTA's reticence to apply its fundraising expertise seems mystifying. "The VTA, God bless them, is very good at finding and shuffling money for projects they want to move forward," says Lezotte. "The money can be moved around."

While Barlow's insistence that the VTA would have to "de-fund one project to move to another" might hold water at the VTA, SunLine transit near Palm Springs serves as a forward-looking example. The agency replaced its entire fleet, spending absolutely no money, by securing a grant for $2.75 million and financing the balance through the California Transit Financial Corporation. "Financing should not be the driver here; the money can be found," writes agency head Richard in an email. "In my view, it's staff's job to show how it can be done if asked, not how it can't be done."

Gas Pains

RENEWED VIOLENCE IN THE Middle East and rising gas prices have once again brought America's dependence on foreign oil to the forefront. As diesel, once cheaper than gasoline, continues to spike, our continuing fuel dependency remains a major issue. Natural gas, on the other hand, is domestic, found in Canada, New Mexico and Texas. And it has been around for years--just go in your kitchen and turn on the stove.

"If you can do it now, you have to cut the bucks for it now," says Douglas Miller, salesman at Dublin Honda and one of the Bay Area's experts on alternative fuel cars. "Looking for another technology down the road is bogus. We've had natural gas for decades--it's an immediate solution with no heavy consequences and an established infrastructure." Environmentalists, of course, agree. Although diesel engines will have to become cleaner as stringent standards kick in, those powered on natural gas have inherently low emissions, and natural gas is nontoxic to breathe. While special low-sulfur diesel fuel has shown particulate matter emissions levels close to those of natural gas engines, the fuel is not expected to be commercially available nationwide for five years or so. At roughly one dollar a gallon, natural gas is much cheaper and, in the long run, a natural gas bus could pay for itself within a few years--on savings per gallon alone.

"This is not a challenging technology to understand, and it's a perfect bridge to fuel cells," says Susan Frank at the Kirsch Foundation. "We're Silicon Valley--this is where we're advancing technology every hour. It boggles my mind why we can't put that into action with natural gas."

And when it comes to the current fuel cell technology, buses are merely in the demonstration phase. According to Ken Koyama, program manager at the California Energy Commission, which is a member of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the prototype hand-built buses cost roughly $1 million to make. "Our goal is to get them commercialized by 2008," he says. "We more than welcome competitive products in 2005, but there may be snags we are not aware of at this time. Things could ramp up quickly and I could be totally off-base," he says, adding, "I don't know--I guess that's what you could say."

The Valley Transit Authority, however, is banking on those buses being commercially available by 2005. Once the agency chooses this path, it cannot go back and must buy the buses at whatever the costs will be at the time. So if the agency doesn't have the money now, how will it finance the soaring costs of new technology in a few years' time? "I hate to see [the VTA] bank on a strategy that can't be realized until years ahead when they have an alternative that's very proven and right here," says Todd Campbell, of the Coalition for Clean Air. "When we look at the availability and cost of these buses, we don't believe the price is going to be that low. The point we're trying to drive home is that you're going to have to make the conversion at some point--why not make the investment today and benefit the immediate ridership?"

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From the November 2-8, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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