Syracuse Post Standard: The story of an $8,000 exhaust filter, cleaner air and the busy hand of NY state government

(April 18, 2010)

 

By Michelle Breidenbach 

April 18, 2010, 8:33AM

Stephen D. Cannerelli / The Post-StandardThomas R. Hinman, senior vice president of environmental technologies at Corning Inc., holds a filter that trap and burn diesel exhaust. "Particulate matter can have a significant impact on humans, particularly those who have breathing issues and asthma," Hinman said.

Corning, NY -- In New York's Southern Tier, about 400 workers are earning union wages and benefits to make auto parts in a brand new American plant.

Some drive an hour each way to shape Corning Inc.'s special ceramic material into 50-pound marshmallow-shaped filters for heavy-duty diesel exhaust pipes.

Corning Inc. has its hands on a unique formula and new government regulations have helped ensure it will be a success.

The work is a blessing for the people of the city of Corning. Their fortunes rise and fall with the company's latest technological marvel, and workers say New York scientists have invented too many products that wound up in production in Asia.

Corning has the government to thank.

The U.S. government passed new emissions standards that required new diesel-powered cars and trucks to use the filters. New York state government helped Corning build the new plant. Then, the state passed its own emissions law that forces owners of old diesel vehicles used on state contracts to install the filters — an upgrade that could cost as much as $30,000 each.

Stephen D. Cannerelli / The Post-StandardCorning's diesel manufacturing facility, in Painted Post, makes advanced cellular ceramic substrates and diesel particulate filters. It's a 550,000-square-foot plant that employs about 400 people.

The private business owners who drive old diesel trucks have the government to blame.

To them, the filter represents the heavy hand of a reckless state government that writes laws without carefully considering the consequences.

David Hamling, president of the New York Construction Materials Association, said the New York State Senate could not choose between crunchy and smooth peanut butter in the five days it took to pass the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act of 2006.

Starting Jan. 1, every truck that shows up on a New York state work site will have to carry a sticker that says it has passed the new emissions test. That includes the hundreds of private businesses that contract with New York to build roads, bridges and buildings. It even includes the subcontractors who deliver concrete or haul away debris.

The penalties are steep, as high as $15,000 for the first time and $22,500 after that.

View full sizeStephen D. Cannerelli / The Post-StandardThree of Corning's products: The Corning Celcor AE Substrate for passenger cars (front right), the DuraTrap AE AT filter for passenger cars (back left) and the DuraTrap AE AT filter for heavy duty trucks.With eight months to go, heavy equipment operators, public bus services and even government agencies are stalling to see if the governor and the state Legislature will change their minds.

The Construction Materials Association has spent $100,000 on a lawsuit against the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The group has asked the court to stop the law.

The law comes with strong support from environmental and public health advocates.

Inhaling diesel particle pollution has the effect of rubbing sandpaper on lung tissue, according to the American Lung Association.

More than 1 million adults and 370,000 children in New York have asthma, which is exacerbated by diesel emissions. Every year, 12,800 New Yorkers are diagnosed with lung cancer and 5,000 people die from it, according to the group.

When they passed the law, in 2006, legislators recognized the health and environmental benefits.

Legislators and Gov. George Pataki were also not shy about advertising the economic benefits to Corning Inc.

Sen. George Winner, who represents the Southern Tier, said the law would showcase how Corning Inc.'s emissions products can help the environment and public health in the state, nationally and around the world.

Pataki signed the bill into law at Corning Inc.

The next big thing

The life story of Corning Inc. is painted on the glass walls of the company's offices, a nine-story building that stands out against the landscape of the Chemung River and the historic main street architecture.

The company has a rich connection to government. It was founded by Amory Houghton Sr. in 1851. His great-great grandson, also named Amory Houghton, ran the company from 1964 to 1983. He served nine terms in Congress, starting in 1986.

The company is, of course, remembered for its glass and is still known on the New York Stock Exchange as GLW, for its old glass works name. But the products go beyond light bulbs and Pyrex baking pans to high-tech materials for fiber optics, liquid crystal displays and even windows for the space shuttles.

Corning employs 24,000 people around the world, including 4,400 in Corning.

Stephen D. Cannerelli / The Post-StandardMembers of United Steelworkers 1000 say it is a blessing to be earning an average $20 per hour, plus benefits, making vehicle parts in a U.S. factory in this economy. Workers have moved from one plant to the next over the years as Corning's variety of products has risen and fallen. For now, the new diesel filters are their lifeline. Posing at union headquarters are (from left) saw technician Joe Herrick, Local 1000 President Mike Walker and foreman specialist Steve Wilson.

Corning's success rides the ups and downs of demand for its vast array of products, and the company took a nosedive when the fiber optics industry collapsed in the late 1990s. Stocks fell from $100 a share to $1.

That's when the diesel opportunity came, said Tom Hinman, senior vice president and general manager of Corning's environmental technologies.

As the EPA began to develop new diesel emissions standards, Corning scientists started to develop a product that could work. They would need a system that could trap diesel soot, not just the gas, as in the past.

Hinman said the EPA generally publishes its plans at least three years before they actually impose new regulations to give scientists time to get to work.

The company spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to make sure it has access to the government officials who make the rules. The company spent almost $1 million on lobbying the federal government in 2009, records show.

In New York state, the company spent about $42,000 on lobbying last year, records show.

The company and its executives are also heavy contributors to federal and state election campaigns.

Hand of government

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eventually developed new emissions standards that required the use of particulate filters on new heavy-duty diesel engines, starting with 2007 models.

At the same time, Congress also wanted to help clean up the 11 million old diesel trucks, the "legacy fleet" that could be on the road for another 20 years. As part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, Congress promised to spend $1 billion over five years to help states and other governments attack the soot problem on older models.

By the time the regulations were in place, Corning had invented a material called aluminum titanate. The material was unique in that it could withstand high enough temperatures to periodically burn off the soot trapped inside the filters.

Most major automobile companies started buying Corning's product for new cars, Hinman said.

Corning built a $400 million, 550,000-square-foot plant near Corning.

New York state taxpayers helped with $1.2 million in grants and about $840,000 a year in Empire Zone tax credits, according to state records and the company.

In 2004, Pataki visited Corning to help dedicate the new factory.

Pataki returned to Corning in 2006 to sign the state's own version of the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act.

In the spring of that year, Corning Inc. and its executives contributed $20,000 to the New York Senate Republican Campaign Committee and its housekeeping committee, most of it on the same day in March, records show.

Two months later, the bill was introduced, in time for the end-of-session crunch. It raced through the Assembly in one month and the Senate in five days, records show.

Legislators said any cost of retrofitting vehicles would be offset by savings in health costs.

Hamling said private contractors did not hear about the new law until after it passed.

Steve Stallmer, lobbyist for theAssociated General Contractors of New York said his 650 members were also surprised. He heard about it the day it passed and had just enough time to leave telephone messages for legislators.

It took two years for the state to hold hearings to write the rules for the program.

Construction business owners testified that they could not afford to buy new parts for old equipment. One called it an "environmental political folly." Some said they were already phasing in cleaner trucks and could not move as fast as the state's timeline.

Public bus operators said the whole idea of taking the bus is green enough and it would be too expensive to outfit buses at a time when money is short, ridership is increasing and fuel prices are fluctuating.

Cost estimates ranged from a few thousand dollars to $30,000 per truck.

The DEC told private contractors that they could submit higher bids on state projects to compensate for the cost of the retrofits.

The suggestion was an insult to taxpayers, Hamling said.

"Isn't that wonderful fiscal management?" he said. "That is such poor public policy that it's offensive on every level."

Private contractors are testing their fleets to determine what upgrades they will need. Some are talking about upgrading only the trucks that show up on a state site. Others are talking about skipping state jobs.

What will the state do?

With eight months to go, there is also no coordinated effort to retrofit the state's own fleet. The DEC cannot say how many trucks have been done. The Division of Budget does not have a cost estimate. Each agency is doing its own thing.

Almost 3,000 Department of Transportation vehicles fell under the new law.

The agency will have to finish retrofitting 883 vehicles before the end of the year. It could cost anywhere from $1.5 million to $26 million, a spokeswoman said.

Other state agencies are waiting to see what the state Legislature does next before spending thousands of dollars on old trucks and buses.

To save money, Gov. David Paterson proposed in this year's budget that the state change the law to exempt vehicles that will be taken off the road by 2013.

Corning had $230 million in diesel sales in 2009.

The company expects the demand to continue in the U.S. market when the EPA extends the U.S. regulations to new farm and construction vehicles. There is also a developing market in Europe.

Hinman said any question about the cost to government and other industries is answered by the positive affects of Corning's product on the environment and public health.

"The more time goes on, people understand that particulate matter can have a significant impact on humans, particularly those who have breathing issues and asthma," he said. Retrofitting with a filter is also cheaper than taking old trucks off the road and buying new ones, he said.

“There’s a lot to be liked about it,” he said.