The EPA’s yearslong, tenuous effort to ease air pollution limits on trucks with rebuilt engines can be traced back to a day early in Scott Pruitt’s tenure as administrator.
Just two months on the job, Pruitt was handed a memo at a “meet the Cabinet” event from former Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), then chairwoman of the House Budget Committee, urging him to undo the Environmental Protection Agency’s limits on “glider kits"—new truck chassis and cab assemblies built for used engines and transmissions.
A week later, Aaron Ringel, deputy associate administrator for the EPA’s Office of Congressional Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations, asked aides in Black’s office for electronic copies to send to the agency’s policy officials.
“I know Admin. Pruitt told your boss he wants to be helpful!” Ringel wrote in that May 2, 2017, email, one in hundreds of pages of correspondence on the issue obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
What followed was quick, consistent work from top officials in the EPA’s air office on a proposal to repeal emissions limits on glider kits. The repeal met immediate and intense opposition from nearly all corners but the glider kit makers it would benefit. Fitzgerald Glider Kits, the largest U.S. maker of the equipment, is headquartered in Tennessee’s 6th District, which Black represented.
The EPA’s own data, in fall 2017 testing, show trucks with glider kits generally emitted four to 40 times more nitrogen oxides and 50 to 450 times more particulate matter than new model year 2014 and 2015 trucks.
The week after Ringel’s email, on May 8, 2017, Pruitt met with Tommy Fitzgerald, co-founder of the glider kit maker, in his EPA office.
Top EPA officials checked with Black’s office before the agency publicly announced it would reconsider the glider kit limits, the correspondence shows. And Black was in touch with the EPA for an update on the timing of the release while the repeal proposal was under review at the White House budget office.
‘Lack of Transparency’
“What strikes me here is the total lack of transparency,” Steven Silverman, a former attorney who worked in the EPA’s Office of General Counsel from 1980 to 2017, told Bloomberg Environment.
“It’s not inappropriate for congressional representatives to intercede on behalf of their constituents. It’s a question of how you do it” and whether it’s done in secret or out in the open, Silverman added.
The EPA didn’t initially release Pruitt’s calendar, shielding from the public his meetings with companies like Fitzgerald.
The EPA’s repeal proposal, released in November 2017, has been dormant for months. The agency has struggled to distance its efforts from a study it cited in the proposal, funded by Fitzgerald and conducted by Tennessee Technological University, that showed glider trucks were just as clean as new trucks. The university has since disavowed that study after an internal investigation into research misconduct.
And the EPA faced legal challenges when Pruitt, on his last day in office in July 2018, attempted to ease enforcement of the glider kit restrictions. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit put that attempt on hold one day after environmental groups sued over it.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler walked the action back in his first days at the helm.
“EPA continues to work towards addressing this matter and engages interested stakeholders accordingly,” EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said in a statement March 14. Block didn’t respond to questions asking for comment on the EPA’s interactions with Black.
‘Red Tape’ of Government
When reached by phone, Black declined to immediately comment. Black passed on a congressional re-election campaign in 2018 to run for governor of Tennessee, but she lost her bid for the Republican nomination.
Former aides to Black say her work on the glider kit issue and her request that the EPA revisit the limits was all aboveboard.
The memo Black offered to Pruitt outlined her concerns, including that the Obama EPA didn’t test glider trucks before restricting them in 2016. It also criticized the Obama administration for failing to consider the economic impact of restricting glider kits.
“The EPA’s rule will destroy any incentive for businesses to purchase or manufacture glider kits, effectively shutting down the glider kit industry altogether and destroying jobs in the process,” read the memo Black gave to Pruitt, a copy of which was obtained by Bloomberg Environment.
“Mrs. Black is passionate about helping constituents fight through the red tape of the federal government,” Teresa Koeberlein, Black’s former chief of staff, said in a statement March 15. “Her advocacy for Fitzgerald, a large employer in her district, was simply for the EPA to reconsider the rule that would eliminate hundreds of good, rural based jobs.”
Koeberlein noted that Black also advocated for Fitzgerald during the Obama administration, urging then-Administrator Gina McCarthy not to apply the restrictions to glider kits.
‘David and Goliath’
Black has previously defended her intervention at the EPA on Fitzgerald’s behalf.
“This is a very small trucking company that provides very good jobs for those small, rural communities that really struggle,” she told Nashville Public Radio in April 2018. “And I think this is a David and Goliath issue where the big trucking companies do not want to see someone be competition to them.”
Fitzgerald employs hundreds of people in the rural Upper Cumberland area of Tennessee’s 6th District. Local reports said the company in 2018 had to close at least one plant and cut dozens of jobs.
Major manufacturers of new trucks—such as Volvo Group North America Inc., Daimler AG, and Cummins Inc.—opposed repealing the glider kit limits, saying it would undercut the investments they made to clean up their fleets.
“The trucking industry has a well-documented history in supporting improvements in both emissions reductions and fuel efficiency,” Glen Kedzie, energy and environmental affairs counsel for the American Trucking Associations, said in a statement.
“It remains inequitable for fleets purchasing the newest, cleanest, and most expensive equipment on the road today” to have to offset pollution from glider trucks, which account for 33 percent of trucking’s emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter but represent just 5 percent of the nation’s fleet, Kedzie added.
No Inappropriate Contact
Jon Toomey, a former aide to Black who is named in several of the emails, also said there wasn’t any inappropriate contact between Black’s office, Fitzgerald, and EPA officials.
“Any suggestion otherwise is meritless,” Toomey, now a lobbyist for Fitzgerald, said in a statement. Toomey left Black’s office in 2017.
Volvo has been in contact with the EPA about the glider kit issue more than any other party, Toomey added.
Critics of the glider kit requirements have pointed to Volvo’s work with EPA career staff in the agency’s Ann Arbor, Mich., vehicles lab to conduct emissions tests on glider trucks.
Volvo, a staunch opponent of efforts to repeal the glider limits, provided the two glider trucks the EPA tested in the fall of 2017, according to emails released to the Environmental Defense Fund and Steve Milloy, a former member of President Donald Trump’s EPA transition team.
EPA air chief Bill Wehrum, however, has defended the EPA testing as independent of outside input—though he did confirm Volvo provided the glider vehicles.
‘Expeditiously As Practicable’
Toomey said he is still hopeful the EPA will adopt a rule from the 2017 proposal, especially given Trump’s focus on deregulation.
"[T]his Obama-era rule on glider trucks was arbitrary, punitive, and eliminated thousands of American jobs,” Toomey said. “This President certainly doesn’t cater to Chinese backed corporations—like Volvo Trucks.”
The Chinese company Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. owns 8 percent of the capital shares in Volvo AB, the parent company of the truck maker Volvo Group North America. Geely also bought Volvo Car Corp. in 2010.
Even with Black out of office, the EPA still faces political pressure from some Republicans to give glider kit makers regulatory relief. In written questions for the record to Wheeler after his Jan. 16 confirmation hearing, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) asked about the status of the glider repeal rule.
Harrison Truck Centers, another U.S. glider kit maker, has facilities in Iowa.
Wheeler told Ernst the EPA was still working on a solution, and though he didn’t have a timeline for finishing a rule, he said the agency would move forward “as expeditiously as practicable.”
But environmental groups are raising alarm at any effort to undercut the restrictions on glider kits.
Glider kit makers’ business model is “predicated on circumventing the Clean Air Act,” said Dave Cooke, a senior vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Trucks with glider kits typically install used engines that may predate the EPA’s air pollution controls for heavy-duty engines. Fitzgerald, for example, advertises that the company installs “pre-emission engines” into new truck bodies “to create a more fuel efficient truck that requires less maintenance and yields less downtime.”
Glider trucks are “super-polluting” and a major threat to Americans’ health and safety, Martha Roberts, a senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund’s climate and legal regulatory program, said.
“We’ll continue to defend these commonsense pollution limits,” Roberts added. “The Trump administration should be focused on protecting public health and not on playing politics.”
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(Updates 36th paragraph with details of Volvo AB and Volvo Car Corp. ownership.)
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