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North Bay trucking companies are spending millions of dollars on new trucks this year in order to meet tough air quality rules aimed at getting older, smoke-belching cabs off the road.

The state has provided grants to help pay for new, high-tech diesels that emit a 10th of the air pollution that the 2006 models produce. The latest grants provide up to $60,000 toward a big-rig that can easily cost $130,000 or more.

North Bay companies receiving grants include Doss Logistics, Expressway Transport, Toby's Trucking and Biagi Bros., plus beverage distributor Eagle Distributing and milk producer Clover Stornetta Farms.

One local truck dealership, Coast Counties Peterbilt in Windsor, estimates it sold about 40 tractor trucks in August as truckers made purchases in time to meet looming deadlines. All but two of those sales involved state grants, said Brian Farrell, a sales representative.

Selling five or six trucks would have been a good month for most of the past five years, he said. Elsewhere in the United States, big truck sales remain sluggish.

"There's absolutely nothing else going on in the rest of the country except California," Farrell said.

The state has required that by 2023 virtually all commercial diesel trucks will be using 2010 technology or better — emission systems able to drastically cut nitrogen oxides and toxic soot. The rules affect roughly a million trucks now in operation, including 200,000 big-rigs.

The grants are part of a $1 billion effort approved by state voters in 2006 to reduce air pollution and health risks related to freight transportation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has told the Golden State that it must clean up the air over a number of communities by 2014 or face penalties regarding federal funding for highways and bridges. More than an eyesore, state officials said diesel emissions can cause cancer and the clean-up efforts can save lives.

"That's why California has to do more, because our air quality is generally worse than the rest of the country," said Tony Brasil, chief of the state Air Resources Board branch that oversees the big-rig rules.

Truck company officials readily acknowledged the great advances that have been made in the emissions technology on new trucks.

Nonetheless, they said, their industry took a significant hit during the recession, and they now are being forced to spend millions of dollars replacing trucks at an accelerated pace.

"They're pushing this too fast," said Toby Giacomini, an owner at Toby's Trucking in Petaluma.

Frank Sousa, president of Expressway Transport in Petaluma, likened the situation to a motorist who thinks their 2006 model car still has years of operating life left in it.

"What if I told you you couldn't drive it this year?" Sousa asked. "How would you feel?"

The clean-up efforts date back to at least 1998 when California identified diesel exhaust as a carcinogen.

In 2006, voters approved Proposition 1B, which provided nearly $20 billion in bond funding for transportation-related projects. The proposition included $1 billion to offer financial incentives to freight companies that upgrade vehicles with cleaner emission technologies.

The state already has required improvements for owners of other diesel equipment, including public agencies and trucks that operate around ports. And due to the recession it delayed the implementation for freight trucks. Regulators have yet to require emission upgrades for diesel tractors and trucks on farms.

The first requirements for freight companies took effect Jan. 1. The companies are allowed to phase in the new trucks over five years. Companies also can avoid buying a new truck by retrofitting older models with a "particulate matter" filter to remove soot, which can cost more than $15,000.

Doss Logistics, formerly Doss Trucking in Santa Rosa, reported it has purchased 25 trucks in the last two years, including 20 this year. Expressway Transport has purchased six this year. Toby's Trucking will buy five. Biagi Bros. of Napa will purchase at least 16.

Clover Stornetta Farms of Petaluma has purchased 29 trucks in a little over a year. And Eagle Distributing of Santa Rosa plans to buy four or five trucks this year.

Company representatives said the number of purchases were much higher than they would have made without the air quality rules. And spending millions of dollars in one area inevitably affects other capital outlays.

"What else could we have done with that money if we hadn't otherwise spent it on these trucks?" asked Matt McConnell, Clover's vice president of operations.

To obtain grants, a company must surrender one old truck for each new one purchased. A hole is punched in the engine block of the older rig.

Trucks from other states and nations must meet the same rules to regularly operate in California, officials said. Most out-of-state trucks that occasionally enter California travel so many miles per year that they will be replaced with cleaner-burning rigs before the state's fleets must be completely updated.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has begun offering new grants of up to $45,000 to smaller companies — those with 10 or fewer trucks. Officials emphasized the funds are an incentive to spur early compliance.

"The sooner they act, the better chances they're going to have to get funding," said Anthony Fournier, the district's air quality program manager.

Consumers can expect to pay for the air quality upgrades in the higher cost of goods, the trucking officials said.

"Nothing green is cheap," said Stacey Biagi-Monk, director of public relations for Biagi Bros.

State officials and the trucking representatives strongly differ on whether the rules will fall especially hard on those truckers who own three or fewer vehicles. Those owners operate roughly half the big-rigs in California.

Such small-scale operators were given more time to comply, said Brasil of the Air Resources Board. They have until January 2014 to put the special particulate matter filters on old rigs or to buy newer models. The truckers then can keep operating those vehicles until at least 2023.

But the trucking representatives foresee many small operators getting out of the business or going to work for someone else. Many already have difficulty getting financing for their businesses because they often lack ongoing work contracts. Plus, they have been buffeted by the economic downturn and the high costs of fuel and other expenses.

"A lot of those guys are barely making it as it is," said Dan Selna, operations manager at Eagle Distributing.

The recession already has decreased the size of the nation's trucking industry, said Adam Doss, president of Doss Logistics. He predicted the state air quality rules will further reduce the industry's capacity to carry goods. Those companies with the resources to meet the new rules likely will increase market share once the economy rebounds.

"We expect to continue to grow as capacity becomes an issue," Doss said. "And CARB (the California Air Resources Board) will make that an issue."