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Metro hopes stiff fees will reform dirty diesel machines

Heavily polluting machines like this excavator will be hit with escalating annual fees from Metro Vancouver in future years unless they clean up their act. - File
Heavily polluting machines like this excavator will be hit with escalating annual fees from Metro Vancouver in future years unless they clean up their act.
— image credit: File

Metro Vancouver is poised to slap expensive fees on the dirtiest diesel-burning heavy equipment to spur owners to clean up their machines and reduce toxic air emissions linked to cancer and other diseases.

The rules for off-road engines will be the first of their kind in Canada if approved by the Metro board at the end of this month and are being hailed as a major new step to improving air quality and the health of local residents.

Older machines with the most polluting Tier 0 engines – typically excavators, backhoes, forklifts and loaders with pre-1996 engines – will be dinged annual fees starting in 2012.

Fees will start at $4 per horsepower and climb to $20 by 2017, so a 120-horse excavator would pay $480 a year at first and eventually $2,400 a year if it isn't retrofitted, re-powered or retired.

Tier 1 engines will pay the same fees, but they won't start to kick in until 2014, while cleaner Tier 2 to 4 engines are exempt.

"We're just targeting the dirty engines," said Ray Robb, Metro's district director of air quality

"If you have a clean engine or moderately clean engine, we're hoping this regulation will be mostly invisible for you."

Besides the stick of higher fees, Metro will offer a carrot to clean up.

Operators who upgrade a machine to a higher standard will be refunded 80 per cent of the fees paid in the previous three years.

Advocates say that could make a big difference because retrofitting an engine with a filter can cut 95 per cent of the particulate spewed out and a new diesel engine releases just one per cent as much particulate as an old one.

Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical health officer Dr. Patricia Daly cited findings that 526 cancers will develop in a population of one million Metro Vancouver residents over their lifetime as a result of air pollution.

Two thirds of those cancers, she said, are from diesel emissions.

"It is by far our biggest contributor to our lifetime cancer risk from air pollution in our region," Daly told Metro's environment committee Feb. 15, urging directors to pass the new bylaw.

"If we can reduce the level of air toxins, we can reduce that risk."

Besides cancer, diesel emissions are linked to short-term illness but also long-term impacts such as lung disease leading to chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and accelerated cardiovascular disease, all leading to premature deaths.

While ships as well as on-road trucks are bigger sources of diesel emissions, the health impacts of off-road machinery are considered worse because they operate much closer to residents.

Metro officials predict the fees will have a significant but not "grievous" impact on affected machine owners.

But there are fears the dirtiest machines may relocate from Metro Vancouver to the Fraser Valley to escape fees but make forays back in when their owners are able to underbid local machines that are subject to the new rules.

"There will be people outside the region bidding on projects," Coquitlam Coun. Brent Asmundson said, noting many backhoe operators are already based in the Valley because of cheaper land and storage costs.

"Hopefully the rest of the province will follow us and we won't have to worry about equipment coming in from other areas."

Metro will hire two inspectors to enforce the rules but it also hopes for help from the public and law-abiding operators.

"We anticipate industry will help us," Robb said. "If you lose a bid to somebody in Abbotsford bringing in a Tier 0 machine that pays no fees, you might tell us about it. I would."

The dirtiest machines operating in Metro Vancouver will be required to carry a prominent label – 'T0' for a Tier 0 belcher or 'T1' for Tier 1.

Directors hope the decals will become a mark of shame, with neighbours speaking out when one sets up in a work site next to a school or seniors home.

Metro's proposed bylaw makes it possible to ticket or prosecute not just the machine owner or operator for violations but also whoever hired them if necessary, so a development company or property owner here could be held to account.

It's unclear whether the rules will apply on aboriginal reserves in Metro Vancouver.

The Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN) is a member of Metro Vancouver so the rules will apply there.

But TFN Chief Kim Baird questioned whether the dirtiest diesels may be run out of most of Metro only to end up concentrated on other First Nations reserves within the region, harming aboriginal people who already have higher rates of disease and lower life expectancies.

"There may be unintended effects of this," she said.

Metro may also be in for a legal fight with the railways, which oppose the regional district's intention to charge them for train switching engines used in yards, considered a significant emission source.

The rules won't apply to all.

Machines under 25 horsepower are exempt.

Nor will Metro charge farm equipment, ships, on-road diesel trucks, most line-haul train engines, emergency standby generators or recreational equipment.

Environment committee chair Joe Trasolini isnt not worried the fees will be too punishing.

"The people who are going to pay those fees aren't the operators, but the customers out there," he said.

Metro directors also hope the provincial and federal governments pitch in with more assistance and subsidies to help older diesel engine owners upgrade.

Officials cite estimates that every dollar spent retrofitting an old off-road diesel may generate $40 in health care benefits.

Metro's environment committee unanimously endorsed the initiative, which goes to a vote of the full board Feb. 25.

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