August 15, 2011 8:20 AM, EDT

Arizona Truck Retrofit Ended After Mexico Money Outcry

By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Aug. 15 print edition of Transport Topics.

A federally funded program that retrofitted 76 trucks in Arizona with new $1,600 catalytic converters was terminated after public uproar that some of the money was being spent on Mexican carriers.

“Money was available for 34 more units, but the program was stopped following concerns about money going across the border to Mexican-owned trucking companies,” Eric Massey, director of the air quality division of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, told Transport Topics. “We experienced quite a bit of uproar over money crossing the border.”

Before it was ended, EPA grants administered through the state funded the purchase and installation of catalytic convertors on 25 U.S.-owned heavy trucks, 19 Mexican-owned trucks and 32 trucks of motor carriers with offices in both countries, said Mark Shaffer, a spokesman for the Arizona DEQ.

Arizona officials said that by installing the retrofits on some Mexican trucks, they were attacking particulate matter pollution at its source — the trucks that cross the border from the Mexican border town of Nogales, Sonora, into Nogales, Ariz.

At first, Arizona environmental officials said the idea of using federal funds to equip heavy trucks crossing the border with new catalytic converters seemed like a good way to reduce particulate-matter pollution.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant funding, part of an Arizona-Mexico border initiative to bring areas near the border into federal clean-air compliance, was first announced by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) in 2009. It stayed under the public’s radar for two years.

In the beginning, the “Border 2012” program was hailed by regional EPA officials as “the kind of on-the-ground action that makes the air cleaner on both sides of the border.”

“The Border 2012 program is once again demonstrating the impact we can have when we work together to tackle challenging environmental problems,” Deborah Jordan, EPA’s air division director for the Pacific Southwest region, said at a 2009 news conference.

Likewise, Brewer called the truck retrofit initiative a “good example of the [Arizona DEQ’s] efforts toward achieving cleaner air for our citizens while maintaining trade and the enormous economic impact that trade has on our state.”

The public displeasure began in April, shortly after Arizona DEQ officials held a news conference announcing grants for another 55 retrofits.

“I spent a whole week dealing with angry truckers and legislators,” Shaffer said.

“Our perspective — and certainly EPA’s perspective — on this is that we have a serious air-quality problem in Nogales,” Shaffer said. “The area is in violation of federal air quality standards. Air quality doesn’t recognize international boundaries. You have to have a cross-border approach to this problem to solve it.”

Shaffer said the retrofits were needed because many of the hundreds of border crossings daily at the Arizona-Mexico border are made with older trucks.

“There’s a cottage industry of trucks on both sides of the border there — but primarily Mexico — that have been retired from doing the long hauls but are kept around to do the short hauls of vegetables across to the U.S. warehouses,” Shaffer said. “We were targeting all of those.”

An EPA spokesman said the agency “continues to fund not only air quality programs but a host of environmental initiatives along the U.S.-Mexico border.”

“Most of the diesel retrofit projects funded to date have been completed,” said spokesman Francisco Arcaute. “Project proponents in the border region can still apply for diesel funds through the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act.”

The controversy serves as yet another example of continuing tensions between the United States and Mexico as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration prepares to begin soon its cross-border pilot project that has divided the trucking industry.

Not only are some U.S. truckers and some members of Congress opposed to the notion of Mexican carriers being allowed to make freight deliveries in the U.S. interior, but there is widespread opposition to a plan by FMCSA to purchase electronic onboard recorders for Mexican carriers participating in the pilot — while at the same time developing a mandatory requirement for U.S. carriers to pay for their own EOBRs.