© 2020 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Sheriff’s Office Steps Up Enforcement Of 'Rolling Coal'

Screenshot from rollin' coal YouTube video.

There’s a trend in San Antonio that seems to be on the rise and it isn’t good for people or the environment.

Some drivers have rigged their vehicles so they can emit thick, black, diesel smoke, often onto people and small eco-friendly cars like Priuses, blinding them.  The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office has begun to give tickets for what’s called “rolling coal.”

Bexar County Deputy Eric Sedillo now has a new job responsibility. In addition to pulling over trucks for not being tarped, or for being overweight, he’s writing tickets for people rolling coal.

"With the pickup trucks, the trend I’m starting to see, they’re driving by and they’re puffing out this big cloud of black smoke on pedestrians and bicyclists and—I’ve even had one try to do it to me," Sedillo says. "It’s a safety hazard. Not to mention it’s polluting the air."

People are working on their trucks themselves, or sometimes their cars, to get them to roll coal. Sedillo says there’s a tuner you can buy that will trick the engine into thinking that it needs more fuel.

"With it doing that, it dumps a lot of the diesel in there, and it just blows the smoke out the back," he says. "There’s other ways they do it as well. They can take the catalytic converter out from the bottom of the truck that runs through the exhaust system."

Rolling coal violates the federal Clean Air Act which covers emissions for all states. New Jersey opted to be more explicit and ban the practice outright on a state level as well. Texas abides by the federal law but there is also a state transportation code that prohibits altering automobile emissions. But, ironically, many coal rollers manipulate their trucks or cars so they pass the emissions tests. In Texas, for a first time offender, a ticket is a maximum of $350.  Each additional violation is up to $1,000.

"I’m starting to see it more and more. It concerns me. It’s a safety issue," Sedillo says. "If you’re on a bicycle and someone does this and you can’t see where you’re going, the chance of you getting hit by a car—they’re higher. If you’re walking down the road with your children, or as a family, it’s not right that somebody would come by and do that. Somebody could get sick. It’s a big thing."

Vincent Nathan, interim director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, says a one-time blast of diesel fumes probably won’t hurt a healthy person, but repeated exposure would cause problems.

"Long-term effects can be anywhere from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, lung cancer," Nathan says. "But you have to have large and sustained exposure. Intermittent exposure is probably not as harmful;  except for people who have those conditions already it would exasperate the condition."

There are men who look to be in their early 20s on YouTube who stick their faces up to tailpipes and wait for the black smoke to blow over them. When they stand up their faces are covered in soot.  One guy driving in his truck claims rolling coal is a chick magnet. He sprays diesel fumes onto two women on the side of the road and pulls over. Then the women climb in.

"Diesel exhaust contains more than 40 toxic air contaminants and chemicals including benzene, arsenic, formaldehyde," says Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. "Diesel exhaust also includes nitrogen oxide which is a key component of the production of smog. And we know that in San Antonio, and in many cities around the United States, smog is a growing health problem. And for the first time San Antonio is in violation of federal smog standards."

Metzger says heavy duty trucks and construction equipment are bigger contributors to air pollution from diesel exhaust. But he says rolling coal still needs to be addressed. 

"I think it’s especially aggravating and irresponsible to have a set of people who aren’t just polluting as a byproduct of their business, but are intentionally polluting and trying to make people sick," he says. "Overall, it’s a small problem, but it’s definitely something that shouldn’t be tolerated."     

James Keith, a spokesman for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, says Deputy Sedillo hasn’t written many tickets yet, but it’s hard to know how many people are actually rolling coal. It’s like texting and driving, he says. You know people are doing it. It’s just hard to catch them.

TPR made multiple attempts to contact locals who practice rolling coal for this story, but no one came forward--perhaps because it is illegal.