When state environmental officials unveiled their anti-pollution plan for North Texas, plenty of local leaders responded with a collective groan.

The less-than-aggressive proposal didn't go far enough, they said. The plan was insufficient to meet air quality standards. And the region's bad air would continue to be bad for business and a danger to public health, they argued.

Those leaders were right. The plan let polluters off easy.

And for months, government officials were wringing their hands, debating how to add teeth to the proposal and improve our air quality. Then they hit upon one idea to help: Use state grants to replace dirty diesel engines that spew dangerous nitrogen oxides.

The Texas Emissions Reduction Plan offers funds to retrofit or upgrade heavy-duty vehicles. And right now, the state is preparing to distribute about $110 million in grants.

For local governments, this should be a no-brainer. The process is pretty straightforward.

1. The state awards free money.

2. Cities, counties and school districts buy new, less-polluting vehicles.

3. We all breathe cleaner air.

Just one problem: Local governments have yet to submit applications for the funds.

The state began accepting requests for this round of grants in January. Several dozen government entities in our nine-county area are eligible to apply.

But two months into this process, the state has received one application from this region.

Thank goodness for the Godley Independent School District. (For those without a map handy, Godley sits about 30 miles southwest of Fort Worth.)

The forward-thinking folks in Godley beat the rush and applied to replace one tractor.

But Godley, with its 997 residents (and one tractor), can't do this alone. North Texas leaders have set a target of replacing 4,500 diesel engines. And while this program is open to the private sector as well, strong participation among local governments, with their large vehicle fleets, is essential.

The lack of applications raises the question: Did Dallas County's get lost in the mail? Has Arlington Independent School District forgotten to apply? Does the city of Plano want to help improve air quality?

Many leaders have been quick to point out problems with the region's inadequate plan for reducing pollution. Now, they have the opportunity to be part of the solution.

Governments have one more month to submit applications.

State officials remain optimistic that a number of North Texas governments will meet the April deadline. And Richard Greene, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, said he doesn't doubt leaders' commitment to reducing pollution.

But with time growing short, local governments can't afford to let this deadline slip through the bureaucratic cracks.

Mr. Greene already has sent letters to leaders in the area's largest cities, urging them to apply. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has held workshops to explain the process. The state has set up a hotline to answer questions.

Local governments should not be lacking for information.

In discussions about air quality, coal plants and cement kilns usually grab the headlines. But aging diesel engines present a serious and often overlooked public health threat. Getting these heavy-duty vehicles off the road gives North Texas a fighting chance to meet federal pollution targets.

Mr. Greene says that replacing diesel engines offers the best bang for our anti-pollution buck. And the best news for local governments? The state is offering the bucks.

URL: http://www.dallasnews.com

—The Dallas Morning News