Colorado to start fining people caught 'rolling coal': what you need to know

DENVER – Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is set this week to sign a bill that will up the fines for so-called “coal rollers” who use modified diesel trucks to smoke out unwitting bystanders.

But what exactly is “rolling coal,” and why did Colorado’s Legislature spend time on two separate bills this session to punish those who do it?

What is coal rolling?

“Coal rolling” has roots in diesel truck pulls, competitions in which drivers modify their diesel engines to pull sleds or other trailers loaded with weight.

But in recent years, people have started to modify their trucks with switches or other fuel or computer modifications that allow more fuel into the engine, creating more diesel exhaust.

The thick clouds of black smoke are evident to those who have seen them, as they are much larger and thicker than a typical diesel exhaust.

Some online retailers started selling kits for people to easily modify their trucks, though regulators have cracked down on them in recent years. But many environmental activists say that the fad is polluting the atmosphere, and others who have been choked by the excess exhaust say it’s simply a nuisance.

Colorado’s past tries at outlawing rolling coal fail

Hickenlooper told the Denver Post he plans to sign Senate Bill 278, saying Colorado would be “well to be rid” of the “cruel” practice.

But SB 278 is the first bill upping the fines for coal rolling that has passed in Colorado after several attempts.

House Bill 1102, which similarly would have added fines to those caught rolling coal, died in the Senate earlier in the session.

In the 2016 session, Larimer County Democrat Rep. Joann Ginal introduced a bill that would have hit people caught rolling coal with a $35 fine and points against their license, but it died before reaching the governor’s desk.

What does Senate Bill 278 do?

But Ginal’s final attempt this session succeeded. She and Sen. Don Coram, a southwest Colorado Republican, cosponsored Senate Bill 278 after House Bill 1102 failed over concerns involving work and agricultural trucks.

The final version calls for a $100 fine for anyone caught rolling coal in a vehicle under 14,000 pounds, but carries exclusions for commercial vehicles and carriers, agricultural vehicles and other commercial vehicles and motor carriers.

Cyclists and police were among those who have voiced concerns about being hit by “coal rollers.”

Fort Collins police in past years have said they were responding to more complaints of coal rolling, and the New York Times reported last year that the state had seen a 5 percent increase in complaints.

What have feds, other states done?

The EPA has said that the modifications being done to diesel trucks violated the Clear Air Act, which has caused some manufacturers of the kits, as well as auto shops, to stop selling the kits or performing the modifications.

But it hasn’t stopped everyone, as police departments say it is a hard rule to enforce in certain situations.

New Jersey banned rolling coal in 2015 (it now could lead to a fine of up to $5,000), and both Maryland and Illinois have introduced bills to put a stop to the practice.

Illinois’ bill has yet to become law, while Maryland’s sits on the governor’s desk, awaiting a signature.

But should Hickenlooper sign the bill this week, Colorado’s law would be just the second of its kind in the U.S.

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