Knoxville News Sentinel - Scott Barker
Standing at the eastbound Interstate 40 weigh station in West Knox County, with tractor-trailers and cars and pickup trucks roaring past, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander had to raise his voice nearly to a yell to be heard by a listener just a couple of feet away.
"Twenty-five thousand trucks a day go by this weigh station," he said. "This is one of the busiest weigh stations in the United States."
The air around the weigh station - and all across the country - should be getting a little cleaner beginning Sunday, when retailers will have to begin selling ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new rule will force fuel outlets to sell diesel fuel that contains 97 percent less sulfur. According to the EPA, the rule will reduce 2.6 million tons of smog-causing nitrogen oxide and 110,000 tons of soot every year.
"I believe this rule will benefit East Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park more than anywhere else in the country," Alexander said.
The ultra-low sulfur diesel rule, formulated under President Clinton and put into action under President Bush despite pressure from industry to delay implementation, will increase diesel fuel costs and the price of new diesel engines.
But the EPA estimates it also will prevent 8,300 premature deaths, 360,000 asthma attacks in children and 1.5 million lost-work days annually. In the long term, the EPA estimates savings of $70 billion each year in environmental and public health benefits at a cost of $4 billion per year.
"Over time, this is going to make a significant difference," Alexander said, adding that removing sulfur from diesel fuel is the most important step in reducing harmful emissions since lead was taken out of gasoline.
Knox and other East Tennessee counties are classified as non-attainment areas for ground-level ozone and fine particle pollution standards. Alexander said the area's air quality is improving, but there's still a long way to go.
Jim Renfro, air quality specialist for the National Park Service, said air quality should improve over the next decade because of cleaner vehicle fuels and new emission controls at power plants.
"The new diesel engines with the clean diesel fuel will lower nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions," Renfro said.
Visibility varies in the Smokies depending on conditions. Renfro noted that in August people could see only 25 miles from Look Rock one day but 130 miles the next.
Don Barger of the National Parks Conservation Association said visibility distances and health concerns are intertwined.
"The fine particles that obscure views in the Smokes are the same ones that can cause severe health problems," Barger said. "We now understand that hazy and unhealthy mean the same thing."
The EPA estimates that the rule will drive up diesel costs by about 5 cents a gallon, but David Dobbins, director of supply and distribution at Knoxville-base Pilot Corp., said the increase has already been included in the price, so truckers and other diesel consumers won't see a big jump at the pump on Sunday.
"The refineries have had to make these million-dollar investments over several years," Dobbins said. "It's going to be a non-event. It's going to be like Y2K."
Refiners and distributors were initially concerned that the fuel, which travels through the same pipelines as higher sulfur fuels, could become tainted to the point that it doesn't meet the standards.
But Dobbins said the pipelines and terminals have handled the fuel effectively since mandated production of ultra-low sulfur diesel started in June.
"It has come out a whole lot better than the dire forecasts originally," he said.
More stringent emissions standards for new diesel engines are being phased in between 2007 and 2010.
David Graves, who runs Acts Fleet Maintenance Service Inc. in Knoxville, said buying and maintaining diesel engines will be more expensive under the rule. Some manufacturers are reconfiguring their engines, he said, while others are adding filters to exhaust pipes.
"The filters range from $800 to $3,000 or $4,000," Graves said. "The filters have to be regenerated every 50,000 miles. That's not much at all on a tractor-trailer."
Sulfur helps lubricate the engine, he said, so the fuel would need an additive to provide sufficient lubrication. Some refineries are using additives, while others are not, Graves said.
However, he added, sulfur also creates acid that harms engine parts over time. Using ultra-low sulfur diesel could extend the life of an engine from about 400,000 miles to around 600,000 miles, he said.
Once the new engines are in place, he said, it will take 60 trucks to equal the emissions that a single truck built in 1988 put out.
"That's making a difference," Graves said. "It's going to cost more to operate, but at the same time we're going to be breathing clean air and we're going to protect the environment."