Research fraud spurs CARB member to call for truck rule suspension

| 12/3/2009

It appears Christmas may be coming early for truckers this year.

A brewing scandal at the California Air Resources Board has resulted in one CARB board member calling for the suspension of CARB’s most expensive truck rule to date.

Written under the authority A.B. 32 – the 2006 law that addresses global warming, the Truck and Bus rule requires trucking fleets to acquire diesel particulate matter filters and upgrade their truck engines beginning in 2012.Most small trucking businesses – including fleets of one to three trucks –will be exempt until 2014.

Numerous California and national news organizations reported this week that several top CARB officials, including CARB Chairman Mary Nichols, knew a year ago that the team leader and researcher on diesel pollution fatalities was a fraud and hadn’t earned the doctorate degree he claimed on his resume.

The revelation came at least as early as December 2008, the day before CARB considered and approved its controversial Truck and Bus rule. The rule, which CARB research then estimated would cost the transportation industry $6 billion to $10 billion to comply with, requires diesel particulate filters and new engines for commercial trucks and buses on California roads and highways.

According to emails posted at, a CARB board member unearthed the scandal that top agency officials had managed to keep quiet for more than a year by asking Nichols and other CARB board members about the research and qualifications of agency employee Hien T. Tran.

In e-mails sent between CARB board members, Nichols and a head of the California EPA, Tran was revealed to not have a degree. The agency and state officials defended him although he was later disciplined internally.

CARB’s Truck and Bus rule was approved partly because of Tran’s research in the report, “Methodology for Estimating Premature Death Associated with Long-Term Exposure to Find Airborne Particulate matter in California.” In the report, Tran falsely claimed that he had a doctorate degree in statistics from The University of California at Davis.

Tran purportedly confessed on Dec. 10, 2008, one day before CARB’s December board meeting began, and two days before the board approved its most expensive rule yet.

“I believe the legitimacy of the (truck and bus rule) vote to be in question,” wrote CARB Board member John Telles, a cardiologist, almost a year later in a Nov. 16 letter to CARB’s chief counsel.

Later, he said a “fundamental violation of procedure,” combined with the agency’s failure to reveal that information to the board before it voted to approve the truck and bus measure “not only casts doubt upon the legitimacy of the Truck (and Bus) rule, but also upon the legitimacy of CARB itself.”

Telles’ words have caused headlines nationally, and appear to be particularly damning to the air quality agency, which prides itself on being more restrictive than any such agency in the world. CARB is scheduled to approve eight different research projects next week that carry a combined $2.4 million price tag.

So far in 2009, CARB has collected $9.7 million in total fines, according to press releases from January to October. The figures were calculated by

OOIDA Director of Regulatory Affairs Joe Rajkovacz, who has attended CARB board meetings, said the recent controversy should make California lawmakers question the power they’ve given the air quality agency.

“What else have they hidden?” Rajkovacz said. “Mary Nichols knew about this when she presided over the public hearings, and she chose not to disclose it. This is a damning indictment of CARB’s process. The board should have delayed the Truck and Bus rulemaking until they evaluated the data by real professionals.”

The December 2008 CARB Board meeting, which lasted nearly 12 hours, included several hours of discussion between agency staffers and board members regarding the effect the Truck and Bus rule would have on small businesses, particularly in trucking.

Eventually, the board approved the rule.

“It turned out the public hearing on the Truck and Bus rule was nothing but a dog and pony show,” Rajkovacz said after finding out about the questionable research.

“You cannot defend data that was assembled by an ethically challenged individual. People have been defending the statistics by saying it was peer reviewed – well, big deal. The individual who compiled the data did not possess the academic credentials claimed. Tran didn’t, and CARB’s top executives defended him.

“Mary Nichols didn’t have the courage to even bring up this information during last year’s hearing.”

CARB spokesman Leo Kay told Land Line Now’s Reed Black Thursday that CARB would probably address the Tran situation and a potential change in the Truck and Bus rule’s implementation at its board meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 9.

The down economy has given CARB staff reason to look at whether down vehicle miles traveled and fuel purchases could indicate corresponding decreases in greenhouse gas emissions, Kay said. That could lead to a relaxing of the rule’s emissions standards.

“Trucks are sitting idle, and some off-road equipment is sitting idle as a result of the bad economy,” Kay said. “We have a plan to allow for some of the reduced emissions that we’ve got. We’ll present the board with a few different options: Do we stay the course on current deadlines, do we allow a little more room, or maybe even a Plan C. It’s up to the board next week.”

Kay described the Tran scandal as an “unfortunate set of circumstances,” and said Nichols felt some regret.

“I think in retrospect, she feels she should have told the whole board as soon as we knew,” Kay said. At the time, things were moving quickly. It was just a day or so before the hearing when the news broke.”

One blog post by The San Diego Tribune revealed a photo of the address listed for Thornhill University, the New York school from which Tran claimed he gained his doctoral degree. The building in the picture is a small United Postal Service storefront.

During the December 2008 CARB board meeting’s discussion of the Truck and Bus rule, Telles questioned whether CARB should include an “off-ramp” should the rule prove to be more expensive than small trucking businesses could handle.

“I don’t think the state of California wants to put people out of work,” Telles said then.

Nichols responded quickly.

“We’ve never adopted a rule that didn’t have severe opposition,” she said in December 2008. “We always go by data given to us by sources, and methods of compliance turned out to be somewhat different than they were at the beginning. It’s the difficulty of this work we do in the air regulatory field that we’re always betting. When we get close to the brink, if we’re wrong – we have to change.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer