Clean air regulations that have been in the works for a decade are proving too tough to implement for thousands of short-haul truckers who call on the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
In a unanimous vote Tuesday, The Northwest Seaport Alliance extended the deadline for compliance.
Dozens of short-haul truckers stayed away from work and instead packed the joint meeting of port commissioners to explain their concerns.
The drivers were supposed to meet federal clean air rules by the start of this year with engines that date from 2007 or later. But about half of the more than 4,000 drivers here have not done so.
The port commissioners extended the deadline to April 1. Drivers can also get an extension until the end of the year by showing they’re in the process of upgrading.
Many of the drivers are immigrants and most are independent contractors who say prices have skyrocketed in recent years. The newer trucks can cost between $40,000 to $60,000.
In testimony, several drivers also recounted nightmare scenarios of investing in a new truck and then having to pay tens of thousands of dollars for repairs because the trucks with newer systems often overheat.
“These are not $400-$500 fixes. I know personally one guy that has piled up bills for like $50,000 replacing or trying to fix the system, the DEF system…that you guys are trying to impose on us,” said Luis Gonzalez, a driver with 4 Ports Logistics who said he’s been driving for 27 years and has a 2005 truck that passes state emissions tests.
“So, as for me, I cannot go get a truck that is going to put me on the street. I cannot do that. If I have to do something else, I will do it,” Gonzalez told commissioners.
Others testified about a shortage of short-haul drivers. They also face heavy traffic and increased congestion at the port terminals that have decreased the number of loads they can deliver per day and, consequently, lowered their incomes.
Fitsum Fikak, a driver with Intercity Express, said truckers care about the environment too. They have kids in local communities, many of which are impacted by air pollution. But he said many drivers want to wait until technology on the cleaner diesel engines improves.
“The situation is not about the [clean air]. It’s about the quality of the trucks that are coming in here,” Fikak said. “We are just asking you guys to work with us so we can find alternative ways to comply. Let’s wait a few months. Technology is blooming as we see it, every day.”
The commission estimates about 2,000 local drivers still need to upgrade.
Also testifying Tuesday were clean air advocates and a handful of drivers who had already invested in cleaner trucks. They asked the commission not to delay the deadline, saying they wanted a level playing field.
Commissioners also authorized spending $1 million on a fund to help drivers affordably finance newer trucks with clean engines, since many have issues with low credit scores and other challenges.
Port commissioners and staff said they hope to leverage the money with grants and matches from other jurisdictions.