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Watchdog group finds EPA failed in glider kit repeal rule

Glider trucks save costs for owner operators. (Photo credit: Fitzgerald)

A scathing report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that the EPA ignored required procedures in developing a proposed rule for glider trucks and that the White House attempted to impede the OIG’s investigation.

The EPA, under former administrator Scott Pruitt, had attempted in 2017 to exempt glider kits from Phase 2 emissions rules developed under the Obama administration after three companies — Fitzgerald Glider Kits, Harrison Truck Centers Inc. and Indiana Phoenix Inc. — petitioned EPA to repeal the Phase 2 requirements for glider kits, glider vehicles and rebuilt engines installed in gliders. The rule set standards for gliders beginning Jan. 1, 2018.

The OIG’s report, released on Dec. 5, found that EPA “failed to develop required cost and benefit analyses and to assess air quality impacts” on children’s health. The OIG also found that EPA officials, under Pruitt, had directed the glider repeal rule “be promulgated as quickly as possible,” according to the report. In addition, the OIG revealed in its report that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) “refused to provide the OIG with specific responses or documentation related to OIG questions” regarding OMB’s involvement in the proposed rulemaking.

“In April 2019, the acting EPA inspector general notified both the OMB director and Congress that the OMB failed to respond to our request for information, which ‘constitutes a clear impediment to our audit,’” OIG asserted.

U.S. Senators Tom Carper, D-Delaware, and Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, who called for an investigation into the proposed repeal last year, said the OIG report “revealed the troubling extent to which the Trump EPA went to break the law” for political benefactors.

“Mr. Pruitt insisted that his staff plow ahead with this rollback without a cost-benefit analysis or children’s health impact assessment, as required by law,” the senators commented in a joint statement. “It is apparent that Mr. Pruitt was committed to seeing this through at the behest of this single company [presumably Fitzgerald Glider Kits, which had met with Pruitt in 2017 before filing the petition], regardless of what rules were broken along the way.”

Carper and Udall called the impeding of the investigation on the part of OMB “a disturbing finding,” adding that current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who took over for Pruitt in 2018, “should do the right thing and immediately withdraw this dangerous, life-threatening proposal.”

Glider kits, which allow truck owners to buy a new truck with a remanufactured engine, are approximately 25% less expensive than new trucks, according to manufacturers, a significant savings for small trucking companies and owner-operators. Testing by federal regulators found, however, that air pollution from glider kits to be “many times” the level generated by new heavy-duty truck engines.

The OIG’s report marks the latest development in a long-running controversy over how much glider kits pollute and the attempts to have them exempted from stricter emissions standards.

Crossville, Tennessee-based Fitzgerald Glider Kits had commissioned a study conducted by Tennessee Technological University in 2017 that found glider engines do not pollute any more than modern OEM systems. The Tennessee Tech study was then used to lobby on behalf of a measure that allows rebuilt diesel engines to be exempt from the Obama-era emissions rules.

But university faculty questioned the pro-glider kit study, in particular the relationship between Fitzgerald and the university, calling it a conflict of interest. In late 2018, Tennessee Tech acknowledged that the results of its glider kit study were inaccurate.

In separate audit released in August, the OIG found that testing procedures that determined that glider kits emitted higher pollution levels had complied with approved standards.

As noted by the OIG, the Phase 2 final rule included a transitional program for gliders, which allowed for “small businesses may produce a limited number of glider vehicles without meeting either the engine or vehicle standards of the long-term program.”

Larger vehicle manufacturers “may provide glider kits to these small businesses without the assembled vehicle meeting the applicable vehicle standards,” OIG stated, but the number of kits is limited to the small vehicle manufacturer’s highest annual production volume in 2010 through 2014, or 300, whichever is less. Those allowances end when all glider vehicles will be required to meet the Phase 2 standards on Jan. 1, 2021.

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.