Exhausted by Diesel
How America's Dependence on Diesel Engines Threatens Our Health
NRDC AND THE COALITION'S DUMP DIRTY DIESEL CAMPAIGN
The public typically envisions polluting industries occupying areas remote from where they live. Airborne diesel exhaust particles break through this complacency. In fact many people live near diesel "hot spots" and are impacted by dozens -- or hundreds -- of heavy-duty diesel trucks or buses passing through their neighborhoods each day. This scenario can be found in thousands of residential communities nationwide which are located near facilities with intensive diesel traffic, such as bus terminals, truck or bus maintenance facilities, and retail distribution centers. Residential communities near busy streets and highways face similar risks.
Diesel Detectives: NRDC's Investigation of Diesel "Hotspots"
NRDC intensively investigated more than ten large retail and supermarket distribution centers in California. A closer look at the distribution center for one California supermarket chain, which is fairly typical of distribution centers around the country, will provide a better understanding of the impact this type of facility has on surrounding communities and workers. The distribution center operates seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Large tractor-trailers haul in foods and other goods from around the country; these shipments are unloaded into a warehouse, sorted, divided into smaller shipments, and then transported out of the center aboard company-owned heavy-duty diesel trucks to the local supermarket chains. More than 800 trucks pass through this distribution center-and through local communities-each day. The impact of this truck traffic is multiplied by the trucks' activities, including idling on the street in front of the facility, driving within the center's yard, delivering or picking up goods at the warehouse loading dock, and exiting the same day. The facility is surrounded on two sides by residential neighborhoods.
Workers at the distribution center-both inside and out-are likely to be exposed to diesel exhaust because the building is open to the yard to allow loading and unloading of trucks. Outside the warehouse, workers drive diesel yard tractors to maneuver the trailers filled with goods around the facility, while others direct traffic or serve as security guards. All of these employees are exposed to very high levels of diesel exhaust.
NRDC performed extensive monitoring at the distribution center, including surveillance of the truck traffic, captured on video cameras over a seven day period, 24 hours a day. During a portion of this period an expert on air pollution monitoring designed a protocol and established upwind and downwind air monitoring stations to collect samples of the diesel exhaust coming from truck movement at the facility. Analysis and modeling of the results reveal a plume of particulate pollution attributable to diesel emissions from this facility. The plume extends beyond the margins of the site itself and projects far into the adjoining residential community. Our expert estimates that local residents, like the family whose backyard we used for the monitoring, are exposed on average to 38 percent more diesel exhaust than typical residents in the area upwind from the facility-a highly significant impact. Exposures to the local residents pose an estimated excess risk of lung cancer ranging from 10 to 100 additional cancer cases out of 100,000 people exposed (depending on how close the residents live to the facility). These risks are 10-100 times greater than levels which require warnings under California's Proposition 65.
The workers at this facility and the local residents have a right to know about the health effects of diesel exhaust. Furthermore, there are ways that supermarket distribution centers can greatly reduce their impact on our air. For example, the yard tractors, which are subject to less regulation of emissions due to off-road classification (they are used in and around the facility to transport goods) can be run on alternative fuels such as propane, electricity, or natural gas. The tractor-trailer trucks that make short-range deliveries to the company's local supermarkets can also be switched to run on clean alternative fuels. Since these local delivery trucks contribute substantially to urban air pollution, switching them to clean fuels would benefit many more people than just those surrounding the distribution center. Changing heavy-duty fleets across the country to alternative fuels would greatly reduce the exposure of local communities to high levels of diesel exhaust pollution, particularly in urban areas.
Focus #5: Environmental Justice: Communities of Color at Risk
While the sources of diesel exhaust differ from site to site, the most significant sources are often concentrated near low-income communities of color. After an intense year-long investigation of diesel exposures in California, NRDC investigators found in a majority of cases that the greatest concentrations of diesel vehicles - at bus depots, distribution centers, and industrial facilities - were typically located in low-income communities and communities of color. This pattern is consistent with numerous studies showing that a higher percentage of environmental hazards are concentrated in such areas.112
For example, NRDC has identified a residential community just north of Oakland, California, that is situated next to a large railroad switching yard. The switching yard is used to load and unload freight to and from local businesses and therefore requires many locomotives to run idle for long periods of time. Because of this idling and the concentration of diesel engines in one yard, high levels of diesel exhaust are released into the surrounding community.
The demographic data for this northern California community reveals that 85 percent of the impacted community is African-American, and the median household income is $18,315. Further, 25 percent of the impacted community live below the poverty line. When these demographics are compared to the city's overall makeup, the difference is disheartening. The city's population overall is 43.8 percent African-American and only 16.1 percent of the city's residents live below the poverty line.
Note: Statistics based on 1998 data obtained from city records.
Dump Dirty Diesel Campaign in California
The Natural Resources Defense Council and Coalition for Clean Air embarked last year on a collaborative anti-diesel campaign combining litigation, advocacy, and education about the hazards of diesel, along with information about cleaner alternatives. The initiative is designed to decrease the use of diesel-powered vehicles, with a resultant improvement in air quality. A shift toward cleaner fuels would mean cleaner air and, most importantly, reduced cancer and other health impacts on communities located near major sources of diesel emissions (for example, supermarket distribution centers), which are often located in low-income communities of color.
We are currently working on a multi-part campaign to decrease our dependence on diesel vehicles. This initiative includes:
- Air monitoring in communities near major sources of diesel exhaust to determine the risk posed by these sources to workers and local residents;
- Litigation against major companies that are violating California's Proposition 65 by exposing their workers and/or local communities to levels of diesel exhaust posing a significant risk;
- Education of private companies, public transit agencies and governmental entities about available clean fuel alternatives-and pressuring those entities to switch to cleaner fuels;
- Community outreach to residents near diesel "hot spots" to educate them as to the health problems associated with diesel exhaust and to assist them in taking steps to protect themselves from these serious health threats.
112. For example, see Joel Thomas Boer and Dr. James L. Sadd, "In Whose Back Yard?" The Demographics of Populations Proximate to Hazardous Waste Facilities in Los Angeles County," 5 Environmental Law News 1, 14 (Spring 1996), finding that people of color are twice as likely as "Anglos" to live in a census tract within one mile of a large capacity hazardous wasted transfer, storage or disposal facility in Los Angeles County.
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