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Your Questions About Rolling Coal, Answered

Jim Hill
A truck rolling coal on U.S. 85

After KUNC reported on the growing phenomenon of rolling coal, where diesel truck owners tune their fuel mix so they emit large clouds of black smoke, our audience asked questions about a few topics that weren't covered in the story. Here are some answers:

What Are The Health impacts of Rolling Coal?

The World Health Organization in 2012 classified diesel exhaust as a carcinogen. It's common knowledge that breathing car exhaust is bad for human health. Vehicle emissions have also been a focus of Clean Air Act regulations because of their negative impacts on human health. However, coal rolling is not a widespread enough practice that there is any science on the health impacts of that one type of release of diesel exhaust.

Does Tuning Your Truck To Roll Coal Actually Boost Performance?

Yes and no. It can enhance performance, but it also causes significant wear and tear on the vehicles.

Marybeth Snyder, a partner at at Northern Colorado Diesel Motors, said truck owners do sometimes make aftermarket adjustments to their diesel trucks to change the original engineering parameters.

"To make it have more power, more boost, more torque, more smoke," said Snyder. "You can buy electronic devices called tuners that do this," she said. While diesel owners can tune the truck to boost horsepower and torque without blowing black smoke, some tune it so that it does blow smoke, or roll coal.  "Not everybody who powers up their truck smokes downtown. They do it for increased performance but they aren't smokers," said Snyder.

Such adjustments can cost as little as a $500, like a plug-in that goes in the cab of the vehicle to much more expensive adjustments, said Snyder. Such devices as well as software programs that tune the vehicle differently are available online, and are easy to install. In older vehicles, the more mechanically inclined can simply make some changes "under the hood and not spend any money at all."

In years past, the shop had installed tuners in trucks, but stopped doing it because "it was damaging people's trucks," said Snyder. "And we fix trucks here, not damage them."

Tuning trucks in this way puts more wear on the gears, the transmission, the gear boxes, and the cooling system.

"It just wears everything out faster. And the more you crank and the more you smoke, the more damage you do. The faster you are wearing out that $70,000 truck."

Is Rolling Coal Federally Illegal?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it is illegal to tamper with the emission controls device on a motor vehicle. (See Volkswagen) It is also a violation of the Clean Air Act "to manufacture, sell or install a part for a motor vehicle that bypasses, defeats or renders inoperable any emission control device. For example, computer software that alters diesel fuel injection timing is a defeat device."

In 2013, the EPA entered into a settlement with Edge Products LLC, a Utah manufacturer, where the company paid a $500,000 fine for manufacturing and selling devices that allowed diesel truck owners to remove emissions controls of their vehicles.

Is It Illegal To Roll Coal In Colorado?

State law prohibits visible pollutants from diesel-powered vehicles, but police officers in Fort Collins say the law is mainly targeted at larger diesel trucks whose emissions controls are failing. Officers must observe five seconds of visible smoke [.pdf] at a specific opacity emanating from the vehicle. In the case of rolling coal, the clouds of smoke are only emitted for a second or two. For this reason, Fort Collins police chose to ticket offenders under a different statute, exhibition of speed.

In May 2015, the state of New Jersey made it illegal to roll coal in the state, citing safety and air pollution concerns. Although it is already federally illegal, making the practice illegal at the state level makes it easier to enforce, said Tim Eustace (D-Bergen), the New Jersey assemblyman who sponsored the bill.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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