Clean Truck Program rolls along

The NWSA and partners help drivers get ready for new emission standards


Inderpal Tatla’s new truck doesn’t spew plumes of black exhaust into the air like his old one did. Instead, his 2012 Cascadia Freightliner emits mostly water and nitrogen as he hauls containers up and down Interstate 5.

There was plenty of life left in his 2004 truck and he hoped to squeeze more out of that investment, but he upgraded so he’d be ready when The Northwest Seaport Alliance banned higher-polluting trucks from its international terminals. Tatla says the change was a financial challenge, but a worthwhile one.

“Climate change and pollution are really scary and if there is something we can do about it, we should,” Tatla said. “It’s always painful to take those initial steps, but they pay off later on.”

Eleven years in the making, the ports of Seattle and Tacoma have worked with truckers to make those initial steps a little less painful. Starting Jan. 1, 2019, NWSA international container terminals will only be serviced by trucks with 2007 and newer engines or certified equivalent emission control systems.

Diesel emissions increase the risk of asthma, cancer and heart disease and newer engines emit 90% less diesel particulate matter than those manufactured before 2007. While the Clean Truck Program was a voluntary initiative to reduce port-related diesel and greenhouse gas emissions, it also brought on complex challenges.

The seaport is serviced by nearly 4,000 trucks, many of which are driven by owner-operators who could not easily buy a new truck that cost anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 or even more. Some said upgrading would put them out of business. Many drivers are immigrants, and some had problems understanding how to apply for programs designed to assist them, Tatla said.

With thousands of drivers, hundreds of trucking companies and multiple terminal operators, NWSA Chief Operations Officer Dustin Stoker, said the Clean Truck Program is one of NWSA’s most significant initiatives. “The amount of coordination, communication and work with so many stakeholders is very complicated.”

A decade in the works

The Clean Truck Program was proposed in 2008 after the ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, British Columbia, agreed to reduce emissions. The Northwest Ports Clean Air Strategy called for an 80% reduction in diesel particulate matter per cargo ton by 2020.

“It is about being proactive and working together so that we can demonstrate good environmental stewardship particularly around air quality,” said Jason Jordan, Port of Tacoma’s environmental programs director.

The agreement meant changes for ships, harbor crafts, locomotives and every other vehicle servicing the ports. The 2016 emissions inventory showed significant improvement and gave much of the credit to stricter fuel and engine standards and more efficient operations.

The Clean Truck Program was originally set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2018, but as the date approached only 53% of trucks were compliant.

“Determining how many trucks are needed is a complicated calculus,” said Sara Cederberg, NWSA’s environmental senior project manager. With twice as many trucks serving the NWSA gateway than the Port of Vancouver, British Columbia, turning away nearly half of the trucks seemed extreme.

Cederberg said it was difficult contacting independent drivers, but as the deadline drew closer, truckers organized. “It took some time, but we all agreed that we wanted cleaner air,” she said. “But there was a lot of debate about how to do it, who should pay for it and timing.”

In early 2018, the NWSA Managing Members voted to extend the deadline through the end of the year. And efforts ramped up to help truckers prepare for the new, carved-in-stone deadline.

Helping drivers

Tatla bought his new truck in 2017, but missed out on a scrapping program run by NWSA and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

Using various pots of grant money, the program gave truckers as much as $27,000 to scrap older trucks and purchase newer ones.

The program scrapped 413 trucks before it ran out of funding.

Tatla secured a loan on his own to buy his new truck, but some weren’t as fortunate. Lenders consider the loans risky, Graham said, and many truckers faced annual percentage rates of 20 to 25%.

Helping truckers get manageable rates required a team effort and changing a state law that prohibited the port from using public money for privately-owned equipment. Once the law was amended, the NWSA joined the Department of Ecology, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and the City of Seattle in pooling $2.8 million to fund a loan loss program.

The program backed loans offered by Harborstone Credit Union and Opportunity Fund. The loans are capped at 7 years and 15%, Graham said. The first 157 loans included a $6,000 bonus for those scrapping a non-compliant truck.

Sound Outreach was enlisted to provide financial counseling for truckers. The alliance also partnered with the California South Coast Air Quality Management District to provide 10 deeply-discounted trucks for purchase if truckers scrapped a truck with a pre-2007 engine.

“Climate change and pollution are really scary and if there is something we can do about it, we should." - Inderpal Tatla, truck driver serving the NWSA gateway

Driving differently

Tatla drives more than 60,000 miles per year and so far his new truck is trouble free. He considers himself lucky, because “I know people who’ve had to spend money on repairs after buying new trucks.”

This doesn’t surprise Mark Sturdevant of Warner Truck Centers. “The new trucks are very complicated and sensitive to lack of maintenance,” said Sturdevant, who spoke to drivers at a summer workshop, hosted by the NWSA and the African Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific Northwest.

Replacing an emissions system could cost $13,000 or void the trucks’ warranty, so educating truckers about how to drive and care for the new trucks is vital.

Newer trucks have as many as seven computers and numerous sensors. Those who are proactive, read and understand their owner’s manual, visit knowledgeable mechanics and contact manufacturers to determine their truck’s duty cycle will find that new trucks are as reliable as older, simpler models, Sturdevant said.

Additionally, drivers must avoid idling for too long so they don’t build up soot in their diesel particulate filters. The soot burns off when the exhaust system heats up while hauling loads on longer trips. If soot builds up, truckers might have to pull over and push a button to initiate the filter regeneration process. This could take up to 45 minutes. The good news, Sturdevant said, learning to stay in front of the process will eliminate this downtime. 

Looking ahead

Tatla enjoys his new truck but remains nervous about possible pricey repairs and maintenance down the road. He’d like the NWSA to find a way to subsidize these expenses.

There aren’t plans to do this, Jordan said, “although we are turning over every stone and looking at every opportunity to continue to help truckers and the trucking community.”

While the NWSA is committed to allowing 2007 and newer engines and equivalents through 2025, other West Coast ports have implemented much stringent initiatives. As of October 2018, new trucks entering service at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach must be model year 2014 or newer. In Vancouver, British Columbia, engines can’t be older than 10 years.

In addition to the cleaner-burning trucks, the NWSA is also requiring RFID tags to enter international terminals to collect data that can be used to make operations more efficient. This could translate to more income for drivers through faster turn times, Stoker said.

Tatla hopes the Clean Truck Program someday improves his bottom line, but for now he’s content knowing he’s part of a team effort to improve air quality.

“I am a very environmentally-friendly person,” Tatla said. “I would love to see generations after us living on this planet in a healthy atmosphere.”