Pressure mounts on Tennessee Tech-Fitzgerald glider kit study

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Following our first coverage of the story, in which a Tennessee Tech study, sponsored by Fitzgerald Glider Kits, concluded that pollution from glider trucks was no worse than from trucks with modern emissions controls, and was cited by EPA director Scott Pruitt when he announced in November he would make the regulatory change requested by U.S. Rep. Diane Black. Last June, president Oldham had signed a letter endorsing the study, pressure has mounted.

On Monday, two ex-U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrators said officials should withdraw the proposed trucking emissions exemption for glider kits from the Fitzgerald-sponsored study at Tennessee Tech University.

The letter was submitted on Friday to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, by Carol M. Browner, who served under President Clinton, and Christine Todd Whitman, who served under President George W. Bush. The letter says the study is based on flawed scientific analysis.

To add fuel to the fire, some Tennessee Tech faculty are calling for action from university administrators. Among other things, the TTU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) drafted a resolution itemizing ten different aspects of the problematic study, and the way it was handled both before and after. They have since resolved that the “Board of Trustees recuse themselves due to potential conflict of interest (to wit, one of their members being in violation of policy and a potential target for the inquiry/investigation), and for the President’s role in the inquiry/investigation to instead be filled by an external agent chosen by the Faculty Senate.”

Since that time, Board Chairman Tom Jones has responded that the AAUP has “no authority” in this matter. Instead, according to TTU German professor Julia Gruber who reached out to FreightWaves, the president seems to be seeking an independent council to potentially “peer review” the study. He has appointed Sharon Huo (one of the several associate provosts) to lead the investigation.

“We have not heard much about it,” Gruber says. Andy Smith, the professor who organized a student rally, was sent an email by the chief of staff to inform him that Huo is not directly under the president.

“Which is bogus,” says Gruber. “So, no, nothing has really happened, and I don't think anything will.”

Gruber also adds that the College of Engineering has asked that the following be the “standard response” to any ongoing inquiry into the study. “It does not matter what the data says,” she says [emphasis hers]. “The fact that no qualified, credentialed engineer oversaw the testing and verified the accuracy of the data automatically invalidates any use of the numbers obtained or any attempt to draw conclusions from it. One does not accept a medical study done by a Barber. There is no difference here. In light of the above, any ‘peer review’ of the data is simply a ‘red herring’; i.e., it sounds plausible on the surface, but actually is meant to distract from the real issue. 

“The College of Engineering has determined that no one on the project had the qualifications to perform or interpret such testing, so the study has no validity. The real issue revolves around the muddy realm of how existing policies at TTU were violated by the top administration,” Gruber concludes.

Perhaps most powerfully, two Ranking Member senators also wrote Pruitt on Monday. Senators Tom Udall and Tom Carper composed the letter asking for detailed information leading up to the EPA’s November 16, 2017 proposal to repeal air emission standards “for some of the dirtiest heavy-duty trucks on the road.” They write:

“According to internal agency research not released until after EPA published this proposal, a new 2017 glider truck can emit up to 450 times the particulate matter (PM) pollution, and up to 43 times the nitrous oxide (NOx) pollution, of model year 2014 and 2015 trucks. Other EPA analyses concluded that, if left unregulated, glider vehicle emissions could prematurely kill thousands of people, and increase instances of lung cancer, chronic lung disease, heart disease, and severe asthma attacks.”

They also write, “We are also deeply troubled that this proposal, which appears to largely benefit a single company, was influenced by an industry-funded “study” that is currently the subject of an official investigation into research misconduct for failing to adhere to basic scientific standards. We urge you to withdraw this dangerous, legally questionable proposal immediately.”

The letter goes on to detail the painstaking efforts that “manufacturers, suppliers, trucking fleets, dealerships, state air quality agencies, non-governmental organizations…and other stakeholders” have gone to in creating legislation that helps to clean up our air. All the while “some of the worst-polluting trucks” could be found exempt “from being subject to air pollution limits, was reportedly developed at the behest of politically well-connected representatives of glider manufacturers.”

Glider trucks used to be a niche industry, with less than a thousand produced each each year and primarily for the salvaging of engines when relatively new trucks were in collisions. The letter observes that by 2015, however, significantly over 10,000 glider vehicles were being sold, “and almost every engine used to complete a glider truck is a rebuilt diesel engine originally manufactured between 1998 and 2002.” The tested engines from the EPA in late 2017 were reportedly so dirty that the “black soot belching from glider trucks clogged the filters of EPA’s testing equipment.”

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