Key to pollution reduction may be making more vintage cars

A well tuned engine produces less pollutants.
I spent most of the Labor Day weekend working on my VW.

Certainly not the pursuit many would choose. But getting the thing back on the road one of my over-riding goals. The next one is cracking that novel. Can't do one without finishing the other. At least, that's the way my mind works.

The engine's back in. The wiring harness is replaced. The engine-insulating tarboard is installed. Rust has been painstakingly removed from the floorboards and Por-15, the rust-murdering paint, applied. The interior heater hoses have been replaced (finally figured out how to source them). I figure the 1974 Super Beetle has several more major weekends before I can haul it off to somebody to put the final touches on the electrical and I can hear it roar to life.

Then it's off to my friend, another class of 1979, in downtown Fresno, Calif. for fresh paint.

All said, this will be a three- or four-year project. But we car guys do what we do. We love this stuff. I'd enjoy nothing better than pulling my bug into the Madera VW show and rubbing shoulders with more aging air-cooled enthusiasts.

Truly, this car is more sculpture than gas-burner. The NOx and related pollutants coming from its dual exhausts have been curtailed significantly.

Yet, that's exactly where many of our current vehicles are headed.  And that may be a good thing for the environment. Economics and regulations will be removing most of the older vehicles on the road that don't have support from nostalgic collectors like myself to restore and repurpose them as spares or show cars.

Reducing emissions

It's hard to imagine the discontinued Ford Excursion finding many such fans. Or the AMC Pacer. At one point, I day dreamed of taking a rocket launcher to that particular model. But the Edsel will remain. So will the 1955-57 Chevy and a host of others.

In California, truckers who own older trucks will have to either buy newer ones or get their existing rigs retrofit with filters to reduce NOx and particulates. State laws will be kicking all the old rigs without 2010 standards off the road. The idea is to get rid the dirtiest trucks in the next couple of years.

New heavy duty semi trucks, with nameplates like Kenworth, Freightliner, Peterbilt and Volvo, have engines that produce 80 percent fewer pollutants than many of the models now on the road. Their engines are more efficient and far cleaner, leading to cleaner air in the transportation corridors on which they transport most of the nation's consumer goods, agricultural materials and manufactured products.

Clean air is the result

Once the old trucks are retired, the rewards in fresher air, especially in the smog-laden San Joaquin Valley, will be evident. However, the people who own the existing older trucks aren't flocking to new and improved models. A new truck costs about $140,000, a used one with a cleaner engine that meets 2007 standards, costs about $80,000.

That's big money to an independent operator who works as many days as he or she can hauling everything from petroleum to corn. Many of them in California have trouble paying their Department of Motor Vehicles registrations on a yearly basis, opting for the monthly option. And shipments aren't guaranteed. Meanwhile, fuel costs are going up.

But change is coming. I work with the Proposition 1B program, which helps truckers comply with California's new clean air laws. The grants I work with either give truckers a grant to buy a new truck or reconfigure an existing one. The money not only helps the truckers but also the economy. Dealers benefit, too.

Consumers adapt

Truckers aren't the only drivers facing change. Consumers must also adapt to changing conditions. Fuel prices and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will prove a steady influence in coming years.

Back in 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the EPA clamped down on national fuel economy standards under the Clean Air Act. The rules, dubbed the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, program, established increasingly stringent fuel economy standards for 2012 through 2016 model-year vehicles.

The rule requires automakers to improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 5 percent a year, with the goal of reaching an average 34.1 mpg for the industry for model year 2016.

Consumers may be paying attention. More likely they're sick of paying for 25 gallons every three days to keep a beastly SUV filled up. Check out some of the used-car lots. See any little cars? Here in Fresno/San Joaquin Valley area, I see a lot of pretty nice Chevy Suburbans for decent prices.

Small car sales increase

August 2012 showed an increase in sales for smaller automobiles and trucks with domestic manufacturers posting double-digit increases over the same period a year earlier. A look at analysis done by the Washington Post shows gains for Ford with the redesigned Escape, Chrysler may have a hit with its resurrected Dart (good friend and motorhead Scott Selph bought one in Oklahoma City) and Chevy did well with various crossovers.

Volkswagen's sale's increased 62.5 percent, mostly on the back of the new Passat but I'm wondering about the redesigned bug. Toyota also saw a big swing upward with a 40.2 percent increase.

Interesting. Perhaps fuel consumption will actually drop. Certainly these new vehicles will make a difference, cleaning the air by spewing far less pollution.

But overall, don't expect much change in the overall direction of fuel use. Vintage car enthusiasts will continue to pursue their hobbies, keeping a pretty significant sector of craftsmen and women in business and a bunch of people happy in their garages. Of course, this old car crew will continue to be a pretty vocal proponent into maintaining a supply of gasoline.

And hopefully, I'll get the bug back on the road. My son is 15 and thinks it's the coolest rig on the road. He's got good taste.

Unleash the Toxic Avenger on climate change

The year 1984 may be famous -- especially amongst high-schoolers -- for the angst of Winston Smith. He's the guy trying to cope with illegal daydreams of individual freedom in the repressed collective created by George Orwell.

But 1984 also brought "The Toxic Avenger," a low-rent cinematic romp with environmental themes. Described as an action comedy horror film, it broke new ground by being surprisingly entertaining and launched the B movie careers of directors Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz.

Mitch Cohen, who later appeared as a bit player in Kevin Smith's incomparable "Clerks," stars in Toxic as Melvin, the Tromaville Health Club mop boy. Cohen's Melvin "inadvertently and naively trusts the hedonistic, contemptuous and vain health club members, to the point of accidentally ending up in a vat of toxic waste," says Cinema Fan on imdb.com.

For the good of the people

Rather than becoming a mindless monster, as would normally be the case in this genre, the "transmogrification effect" turns Melvin into the Toxic Avenger, royally irritated by "corruption, thuggish bullies and indifference."

Imagine then Melvin's response to climate change. Truly pissed.

Climate change has emerged as a summer blockbuster this year with more than half the United States experiencing drought. Still a far cry from the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, the phenomena is increasing popular awareness of the fragility of the environment. And rising average temperatures appear all but a certainty at this point, giving credence to predictions of future difficulties.

Nate Seltenrich of the East Bay Express writes about how sea level rise, brought on by climate change, would affect the San Francisco Bay region. He says the toxic legacy of polluted old industrial sites ringing the bay could unleash some particularly bad news for residents.

"Water could wear away at existing caps, barriers, and other containment measures, increasing the mobility of buried materials," Seltenrich says. "It could also carry metals, chemicals, and oils directly into groundwater and the bay, where they would harm human health and plant and animal life."

Up, up and away

In a another piece, Molly Samuel of kqed.org's Climate Watch, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists eight superfund sites near the bay. There are 1,304 superfund sites across the country, according to the EPA.

Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard is one of those sites.

Hunter's Point covers 493 acres on land and another 443 underwater and was established in 1869 as the first dry dock on the Pacific Coast. The Navy arrived in 1940 and used it as a shipbuilding and repair facility. Submarines nosed in after World War II and continued to hang around until the 1970s, when some of the land was leased to a private ship repair company. The EPA says tests in 1987 confirmed the area was rife with "polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), trichloroethylene and other solvents, pesticides, petroleum hydrocarbons, and metals including lead."

In 1991, the Department of Defense closed the shipyard.

My mom the activist avenger

I have a personal connection. My mother the activist has been trying to clean up Hunter's Point using local labor for decades. She's a longtime resident of the Hunter's Point Bay View neighborhood and is fixated on bringing the land back to health. That means birds, wetlands and people.

Sea level rise there wouldn't be pretty. Nor would it in the nearby Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where rising waters threaten the complex network of levees and channels that provide the source of water for two of three people in the state. Fresh water from the Sierra Mountains is sent by way of a massive aqueduct and a sophisticated and energy-intensive network of pumps down through the San Joaquin Valley and up over the Grapevine pass to Los Angeles.

Visualize the superfund toxic mixture mingling with that precious fresh-water system. Ugh.

And here's the connection to the Toxic Avenger, or at least my attempt to make one. Melvin just wouldn't stand for such pollution. Of course, he might explode trying to right the wrongs. There are so many. Too much for one really ugly dude.

There may be room for a sequel, however. Cohen came back for "Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV." Maybe he could do another and call it "Superfunds of San Francisco" or something.

Superfund list grows by seven

Add New York's Newtown Creek, Michigan's Ten Mile Drain and a particularly polluted Florida dry cleaner to the list of national superfund sites.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tossed those and four others onto its National Priorities List, a collection of the country's nastiest real estate that poses a risk to human health and the environment. Not good, but cleanup means work.

The list's newcomers aren't that special. There are currently 1,275 others in the federal program, which investigates and strives to rid sites of pollutants. The EPA said to date 345 sites have been removed from the list.

These aren't your run-of-the-mill backyard meth trailers or even a fuel-saturated aging gas station. These messes are big, complicated and troublesome to remediate.

The ultimate superfund site is the Hanford nuclear reservation in southeast Washington state, a massive piece of tumbleweed-choked desert that hides extensive plumes of underground radioactive and chemical contamination flowing slowly and determinedly toward the nearby banks of the mighty Columbia River. It's ringed by the cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, upriver from the the sprawling metropolis surrounding Portland, Ore.

John Stang, a reporter I worked with for about seven years at the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick and an expert on Hanford's buried radioactive glop, says even after billions of dollars dumped into its cleanup (a sum that rivals the Alaska state budget each year), it's still got issues.

Lots of them. Here's how Stang describes "The Area," as it is known, in a piece for the seattlepi.com: "During much of Hanford's Cold War days of producing plutonium, about 450 billions gallons of non-radioactive and slightly radioactive fluids -- about 125 different contaminants --- were dumped directly into the ground." But government-funded teams headed by the best the world has to offer are making progress.

Still, strontium 90 is nothing I'd like to swim around in, or quaff if it got into the Columbia, which supplies drinking water to millions.

The truth is superfund sites are no joke. They're complex, difficult and controversial. But dealing with them is a good thing and an opportunity to provide green jobs. Often, they're not the most glorious. Yet they're important and often highly technical. Ken Strickland, a childhood friend from Anchorage, has done quite well for himself specializing in site cleanup and restoration in Canada. He takes his job as a steward for a cleaner planet seriously.

Here's a rundown on the latest superfund arrivals. They will need people like Strickland.

  • The Black River flows through Jefferson County, N.Y. and empties into Lake Ontario. Industry has dumped its leftovers into its waters since the 1890s and it now boasts two active paper mills, a machine shop, the Carthage/West Carthage sewage treatment plant and a hydroelectric power plant. The EPA says river sediment is contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, dioxins and other chemicals. PCBs are considered probable human carcinogens and are linked to such pleasant things as as low birth weight, thyroid disease and learning, memory and immune system disorders. Cleaning this one won't be simple. Dredging, one of the remedies for relieving waterways of their placer gold deposits, is one way but destroys habitat for generations.
  • Newtown Creek in Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y. offers a fascinating history of the birth of an industrialized nation. Unfortunately it's also one that left its dirty fingers all over the Newtown's banks. The EPA says that by the 1850s, Newtown Creek and the surrounding area had become one of the largest industrial centers in New York City and by 1870 more than 50 refineries ringed its banks. Early last century, Newtown served as one of the key industrial arteries in New York City. Suffice to say that anything nasty in manufacturing has been there and it's highly polluted. Cleanup will certainly not be simple, but recognition of the problem represents a huge step for cleaning up the Big Apple's waterways.
  • General Dynamics Longwood in Longwood, Fla. General covers about 10 acres. The corporation and its predecessors manufactured circuit boards on the property until the 1980s, cleaning them with a vapor degreaser containing trichloroethene. The EPA says the chemical was stored in 55-gallon drums and in an above-ground storage tank on the eastern portion of the property. General Dynamics Corporation occupied the site from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s. Contaminants in ground water include arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and silver.
  • Sanford Dry Cleaners on South Palmetto Avenue in Sanford, Florida would appear the tamest of the bunch. It's made up of two adjoining parcels of about an acre and sits in the historic section of downtown Sanford. But it's been around since the 1940s, and the site is rife with contaminants. EPA says tetrachloroethene, trichloroethene and dichloroethene were found in shallow and deep ground water samples in concentrations above the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Act Maximum Contaminant Levels. Not pretty.
  • The 29-acre abandoned Smokey Mountain Smelters facility in Knox County, Tenn. operated from 1922 to 1979 primarily producing agricultural chemicals. The EPA says that in 1979, Smokey Mountain Smelters was established and operated as a secondary aluminum smelter, a process that involved the melting aluminum scrap waste and casting ingots. Currently, the site has arsenic- and PCB-laced soil and groundwater and has massive piles of waste that contain contain extremely corrosive water-soluble salts containing aluminum nitride, sodium and potassium chlorides and heavy metals. Homes are as close as 200 feet away.
  • Ten Mile Drain in St. Clair Shores, Mich. consists of concrete storm sewer pipes and surrounding soil, which are heavily contaminated with PCBs. Those PCBs have migrated into four canals where the storm sewer discharges and in Lake St. Clair. The EPA says a source is not known.
  • Vienna Wells in Vienna, Mo. includes three contaminated public drinking water wells. The EPA says the suspected source of tetrachloroethylene is the former Langenberg Hat Factory, which operated from 1952 until 1996. A decade of monitoring has shown increased contamination in the wells, which provide the main source of drinking water for about 625 people.
Photo: newtowncreekalliance.org