LOS ANGELES -- Three major California grocery chains will begin rolling out alternative-fuel big rigs in response to a recent landmark court settlement over cancer-causing emissions from diesel trucks.
Under the settlement, reached April 27 after a year of negotiations, Albertson's, Boise, Idaho; which recently merged with Lucky Stores; Ralphs, Compton, Calif., a division of Kroger Co., Cincinnati; and the Vons division of Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., will conduct a three-year demonstration project using alternative fuel vehicles, according to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Vons will test 60 heavy-duty natural gas trucks, while Albertson's and Ralphs will each use 25 alternative fuel trucks to reduce emissions. The grocery chains also agreed to lower diesel emissions by reducing the idling time for trucks at the distribution centers, and to limit the amount of their power coming from diesel fuel to 15%.
The alternative-fuel project is likely to produce the largest fleet of heavy-duty natural gas trucks in the nation, according to the Attorney General's office. In addition, the three grocery chains will issue specified warnings about exposure to cancer-causing diesel exhaust to residents who live near distribution centers served by their diesel trucks. They were accused of exposing these neighborhoods to cancer-causing exhaust in violation of Proposition 65, California's antitoxins law.
The chains' agreement to convert their fleet "is the first collaborative effort of its kind," said Deborah Lambert, corporate director of public affairs for Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., Vons' parent company. Vons and Lucky had already committed to using alternative fuels when the lawsuit was filed two years ago.
"Vons took the next big step to give the alternative or 'dual fuel' a realistic test." Lambert added that Vons already has 30 trucks using alternative fuel on the road today, has constructed an alternative fueling station and plans to add another 30 alternative fuel trucks by the end of 2001.
"This is a national issue. The environmental groups happened to focus on supermarkets, but they could have focused on any industry," Lambert said. While neither the lawsuit nor the state have determined what levels of diesel fuel are acceptable, she said Vons is setting an example for others in the grocery industry.
"We already have one truck in operation that operates on alternative fuel," said Judie Decker, spokeswoman for Albertson's, Boise, Idaho. Decker said that over 36 months, Albertson's will add 24 additional alternative-fuel trucks from its Buena Park, Calif., facility. While all three grocery chains say it's too early in the pilot program to determine the effectiveness of the dual fuel program, Decker added that "we need a pilot period to make sure we can do the long haul."
"We have no dual-fuel trucks yet in operation," said Terry O'Neill, spokesman for Kroger's Ralphs Grocery chain in Compton, Calif. He explained that while Ralphs was among the operations least affected by the settlement, it plans to add 25 alternative-fuel trucks to its fleet by March 2003. Under the settlement, all three grocery chains have three years to comply.
Nevertheless, some in the trucking and environmental industry feel the California alternative-fuel settlement is not more advantageous for grocery chains than the diesel fuel system now in use. "If someone comes up with an alternative solution to diesel that is cheaper, grocers will use it," says Mike McCarthy, director of Education and Distribution Services, Food Distributors International in Falls Church, Va. "Otherwise, I still think that the major issue for food distributors is keeping costs down."
McCarthy explained that fuel is a significant part of the total cost picture, and that grocery chains operate on such thin margins that the industry will resist price increases. "If it did open up a Pandora's box where diesel fuel was curtailed and costs go up, the consumer could be affected in the long run," he added.
"This is an anomaly where there are no environmental benefits," says Stephanie Williams, environmental manager for the California Trucking Association, based in West Sacramento, Calif., referring to the resulting actions from the alternative-fuel settlement. "It's a one-time only California phenomenon because environmentalists were so greedy for a settlement, they used fuel that is no cleaner than what trucks are already using -- diesel," Williams said. Williams also believes that the three grocery chains now switching to alternative fuel "probably will be the only people in the state to comply with the Proposition 65 ruling."
Williams and others explain that so-called 'dual fuel' is a combination of liquid natural gas and diesel. Williams said that while diesel costs roughly $1.45 per gallon and dual fuel costs 77 cents per gallon, it takes twice as much of the latter to run a truck. On top of that, trucks that run with dual fuel are about $35,000 to $45,000 more expensive than diesel trucks.
Still, for now, the grocery chains are willing to give alternative fuel the benefit of the doubt. "It's a little too early to see the benefits," said Safeway's Lambert. "While it's not as efficient as diesel, dual fuel does run cleaner." Lambert added, "If there is an effective diesel alternative, we'll consider it."