California group suing CARB believes 31 fires have been caused by DPF

By Charlie Morasch, Land Line contributing writer | 7/30/2015

A coalition of businesses and truck owners who are suing the California Air Resources Board believe a recent rash of roadside fires is part of a larger trend – diesel particulate filters failing the very environment they were designed to protect.

The Alliance for California Business believes DPFs have started as many as 31 fires in the last 18 months, including several in CARB’s drought worn home state.

Bud Caldwell, the organization’s president and owner of 11 trucks, says multiple fires in recent weeks appear to be the result of fires that started below the truck’s engine compartment.

“But nobody investigates fires unless there is a death,” Caldwell told Land Line.

Caldwell pointed to multiple fires along California highways during the last year, including four separate fires believed to be set by a single truck on July 6 and fire from one truck spreading to two others at a Natomas, Calif., truck stop last November.

At issue, Caldwell says, is whether properly maintained DPFs can become clogged when the filter system fails to regenerate and burn larger diesel particulates into ultrafine particulate ash.

“When this happens, ‘back pressure’ levels within the engine increase, which in turn results in extremely high temperatures” in both the DPF and engine systems, according to a letter the Alliance for California Business sent CARB Board Member Sandra Berg. “Thankfully, these fires have not yet claimed any lives. … It is however, only a matter of time before the warning becomes a tragedy. What is CARB’s excuse going to be when that day arrives?”

The July 6 fires were started about one mile apart, with the largest fire stretching five acres wide along California Highway 156 near San Juan Bautista, Calif.

The fire chief who oversaw the response to the four fires told Land Line Magazine that fire investigators believed the fires were caused by the emissions system from a commercial truck.

The Alliance for California Business has battled CARB in court over California’s Truck and Bus Rule – a multi-billion-dollar rule that has banned trucks with pre-2007 model year engines and required DPFs on virtually all trucks hauling freight in the Golden State.

The organization is seeking an injunction against the Truck and Bus Rule to prevent its enforcement by CARB. Earlier this year, the lawsuit appeared to hit a roadblock when Glenn County, Calif., Superior Court Judge Peter Twede denied the preliminary injunction.

Caldwell, who has 43 years of experience in trucking, said the ruling wasn’t a setback and that the court simply wanted more information linking DPFs with truck fires.

Fires started by DPFs have sparked investigations and even sunk one diesel particulate filter company once honored by CARB.

While the Truck and Bus Rule has been bad for small businesses, Caldwell said fires and safety issues raised by DPFs have made his cause a moral one. Caldwell said the Alliance for California Business is continuing to compile data to resubmit in court in hopes that an injunction against the Truck and Bus Rule will be granted.

An attorney working for Caldwell’s organization is taking depositions from CARB staff members, he said. Each request for a deposition has been met with objections by CARB, he said.

“Why would they object to anyone asking information about DPF fires?” Caldwell said. “It’s kind of like they’re saying, ‘We didn’t do anything, but if we did, we’re not responsible.’”

In September 2011, a spark kicked from a big rig and started a 3,600-acre forest fire that destroyed 100 structures and displaced hundreds of rural Washington residents. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources investigation blamed the fire on a Cleaire diesel particulate filter and estimated the fire’s total cost at $5.2 million.

The fire was fought first by a group of nuns working a bucket line as the blaze threatened their monastery. The nuns were eventually replaced by more than 800 firefighters.

The following year, another fire was blamed on another DPF made by Cleaire. Cleaire, which had won the California Air Resources Board’s most prestigious award, folded in early 2013.

Aside from creating a safety issue, Caldwell said the Truck and Bus Rule eliminates opportunities for young truck drivers to buy used trucks, maintain them, and build their business from the ground up.

“When CARB made this regulation, it kicked thousands of independent truckers out of this business,” Caldwell said. “If I had started my business today under CARB regulations, I couldn’t do it.”

In the meantime Caldwell will continue compiling information about fires caused by trucks and the filters his home state requires.

“We initially started this because it was difficult for businesses,” Caldwell said. “Now, this is just wrong.”

“We’ll keep trying as long as we can.”

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