Thursday, February 15, 2018

Nation's largest maker of 'glider' trucks wins EPA exemption; in defense, cites its hundreds of rural manufacturing jobs

UPDATE, Feb. 22: The president of Tennessee Tech asked EPA not to use or refer to the study until its investigation is completed. EPA said it did not use the study as a basis for withdrawing the rule.

When the Environmental Protection Agency restored an exemption for big trucks made from old engines and new chassis called "gliders," it helped a fast-growing manufacturer in rural Tennessee that had pulled political and academic strings to make its case. But it was bad news "for an array of businesses and environmentalists," because the old engines "spew 40 to 55 times the air pollution of other new trucks, according to federal estimates," Eric Lipton reports for The New York Times.

Fitzgerald's locations; the firm plans to build a research facility in
Sparta for Cookeville-based Tennessee Tech. (Google map, adapted)
Under the Obama administration, EPA tried to close the loophole, but before that move could take effect, Tommy Fitzgerald of tiny Byrdstown, Tenn., hosted President Trump and lobbied EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and got help from U.S. Rep. Diane Black (whom he helped by rounding up $225,000 in contributions to her campaign for governor) and Tennessee Technological University, which took Fitzgerald's money to do a study that minimized the loophole (and is doing a “misconduct in research” investigation at the demand of faculty) and may build a research center with Fitzgerald money.

In their defense, Fitzgerald and Black wave the rural flag. “I don’t know why anyone would want to kill all these jobs,” he told Lipton, who notes "the several hundred people he said he employs at his dealerships, many of them in rural areas." A Black spokesman told Lipton, “There are very few companies willing to try and keep manufacturing jobs in rural Tennessee today, and Diane fights hard to support the few that do.” An EPA spokeswoman said Pruitt accepted Fitzgerald and Black's argument that EPA lacked authority to regulate the trucks and his decision was unrelated to politics.

Fitzgerald is the nation's largest glider maker, Lipton reports: "The trucks, originally intended as a way to reuse a relatively new engine and other parts after an accident, became attractive for their ability to evade modern emissions standards and other regulations. . . . The trucks, which Fitzgerald claims burn less fuel per mile and are cheaper to repair, have been on the market since at least the 1970s. But after the federal government moved to force improvements in truck emissions, with standards that were first enacted during the Clinton administration and took full effect by 2010, gliders became a way for trucking companies to legally skirt the rules." For an analysis by the Environmental Protection Network, which favors the standards, click here.

Lipton adds, "The glider trucks take advantage of other regulatory loopholes. Since most of the engines were manufactured before 1999, the trucks are exempt from a federal law that went into effect in December intended to prevent accidents caused by fatigued drivers. The law requires commercial truck drivers to use an electronic logging system to track how many hours they spend behind the wheel, and to take mandatory breaks. The law covers truck engines manufactured after 1999." Some gliders "are not subject to a 12 percent federal excise tax imposed on truck sales, because they are not considered new trucks. Ms. Black intervened with the Internal Revenue Service last year, along with three other members of Congress, to protect that tax break."

Chet France, former director of assessment and standards at EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, told Lipton that U.S. salvage yards have enough truck engines to supply the glider market for decades. "Truck manufacturers, as well as shipping companies like UPS, fear that a permanent loophole would encourage other truck dealers to enter the glider business, further undermining efforts to reduce health hazards associated with diesel exhaust and creating unfair competition for them," Lipton reports. "The National Association of Clean Air Agencies, representing state regulators, and the attorneys general from 12 states have joined in protesting the rollback." Terry Dotson, owner of Kentucky-based Worldwide Equipment, which makes trucks that comply with current emissions rules, told Lipton, “I want Mr. Fitzgerald to make a fortune and be a happy man. But everybody ought to play by the same set of rules.”

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