The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants a 97-percent reduction in sulphur from diesel fuel by the year 2006, and it's taking its proposal directly to the public.

The second of five scheduled hearings on the issue will take place in Rosemont, Illinois, on Tuesday.

At the first of the hearings -- conducted Monday in New York -- Margo Oge of the EPA said, "Anyone who has ever driven behind a bus or a truck is familiar with the smell of the diesel fuel and familiar with the cloudy emissions that come out from those trucks."

The agency heard testimony from doctors, lawyers and activists who said exhaust from diesel fuel is polluting the air and contributing to rising asthma rates in U.S. cities.

"Just as removing lead from gasoline was the key to cleaning up cars in the mid 1970s, removing sulphur from diesel will be the key to cleaning up diesel trucks and buses in the coming decades," testified Richard Kassel of the Natural Resources Defense Council

Industry reacts

Red Cavaney, a petroleum industry official, agreed that sulphur emissions need to be reduced, but he said a 90-percent reduction is more reasonable.

"We are concerned that the agency's diesel sulfur proposal risks going too far, too fast," testified Cavaney, president of the American Petroleum Institute.

"We estimate that EPA's proposal could add about $2,600 to the cost of a trucker's annual operations in higher diesel fuel costs," he said

The higher fuel costs could also harm businesses with small fleets of vehicles such as bakeries and nurseries, farmer-owned refineries and, ultimately, all consumers, Cavaney said.