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Glider trucks, EPA's full throttle attack on clean air

The term “glider truck” doesn’t sound especially nefarious, and, at one time, they weren’t. But here’s what they are and why Americans should be outraged that departing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt gave — on the final day of his insufferable career of toadying to energy lobbyists and putting Americans’ health and environment at risk — the go-ahead for the creators of these so-called “super polluting” trucks to put many more on the road for no other reason than they are profitable to the handful of companies that make them.

Manufacturers, the best known of which is Tennessee-based Fitzgerald Glider Kits, scoop up 18-wheelers that are no longer roadworthy, rebuild their engines and drive trains, and then surround them with brand new truck bodies. From the outside, they look like sleek, new trucks, but on the inside, they run on diesel engines that would never be permitted on the road in a new truck — by a long shot.

There was a time when such rebuilt trucks were simply a way to shave a few bucks off the cost of buying a big rig, but no longer. Now, they are the means to deliberately circumvent federal diesel emissions standards and thereby reduce operating costs. That’s why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had previously adopted a cap on glider trucks — 300 per manufacturer. Glider trucks are estimated to produce 40-50 times more pollution than trucks manufactured since 2014, according to the agency’s own data.

But last Friday, as much of the country rejoiced at the knowledge that the former Oklahoma attorney general (and most ethically challenged member of the Trump cabinet) was finally headed out of town, Mr. Pruitt quietly ordered the agency not to enforce the cap through at least the end of next year. That is likely to put thousands more of these rolling death dealers on the highways. And putting it that plainly is no exaggeration.

Reducing the toxic pollutants emitted by burning diesel fuel has been one of the EPA’s better success stories over the last 18 years. Americans have been spared thousands of premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of cases of respiratory illnesses because the agency has clamped down on the exhausts from diesel engines that are 10 times more polluting than their gasoline counterparts. According to one estimate, a modern truck engine runs 98 percent cleaner than one built before 2001. The World Health Organization lists diesel air pollution as a major (Group 1) human carcinogen, a category shared with tobacco and mustard gas.

Many Trump supporters will likely turn a blind eye to this outrageous action simply because of the conservative mantra that the EPA before Mr. Pruitt’s arrival was some kind of far-left, overzealous bureaucracy that was wholly unsympathetic to the needs of the business community. But the glider truck decision doesn’t fit that narrative. It isn’t about looking out for truck manufacturers. On the contrary, makers of big rig trucks are hurt by this action. They’ll lose thousands of sales in the U.S. as glider kit makers temporarily flourish. Cleaner diesel costs more. Polluting the air is cheap — at least for the glider companies. It’s costly for Americans who pay the price in health care and manufacturing jobs.

What makes the choice even more foolish is that there isn’t much of a future in glider kits. The Trump administration is rewarding an industry that represents just 5 percent of the trucks on the road today by compromising the health of millions. There is no logic in that. So why the handout? Could it be because Fitzgerald hosted a Trump campaign event in Tennessee two summers ago?

The decision weighs particularly heavily in Maryland, which has some of the worst air quality on the East Coast. Just last month, state officials asked the EPA to reconsider its decision not to impose tougher pollution standards on certain Midwestern power plants despite documentation that their emissions contribute greatly to Maryland’s smog problem, about two-thirds of which is estimated to come from out-of-state sources. Over the last two years, the Baltimore area has experienced 21 days when harmful ozone levels exceeded federal standards compared to 14 the previous three years. Unfortunately, if there’s one consistency, it’s the Trump administration’s indifference to a serious and costly environmental threat. The arrival of a new EPA administrator isn’t going to change that.

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