Living Among the Diesel Trucks: My Environmental Injustice Story

To a college student who grew up surrounded by heavy truck traffic, warehouses, and commercial hubs in one of California’s most polluted communities, the push to electrify transportation is more than just urgent health policy—it’s personal.

The 101 Freeway at the Oakland Road entrance

Credit: Andrea Guerra/NRDC

I woke up to my 17-year-old brother breathing from his inhaler before heading out to work. I had forgotten that this was routine for him ever since I moved out for college. Poor air quality from the Dixie Fire raging in Northern California had left Friday night’s sky a smear of gray and dark red.

Californians are becoming all too familiar with this scene. When the air worsens in the Bay Area, especially during the fire incidents of the past few years, my brother’s inhaler is essential. His lungs, weakened by asthma, are now at risk whenever anything taints the quality of the air he breathes.

The Dixie Fire in northern California on August 5, 2021
Credit: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE)

Clean air for frontline communities like mine in Santa Clara County—where almost 70 percent of the roughly 1.9 million residents are people of color—is often a distant luxury. In addition to the wildfires, our air is polluted by heavy traffic from the ports and Bay Area commuters, as well as by the cargo ships hauling goods through the Bay, all contributing to a public health crisis for our working-class Latino community.

This summer, I had the opportunity to be the University of California, Merced’s first summer intern with NRDC. During my 10-week internship, I worked in the Climate & Clean Energy Program and focused on clean transportation, specifically the Advanced Clean Fleets (ACF) rule designed to clean up California’s truck emissions. The experience made me realize that my brother’s respiratory problems, a common health issue throughout my Northside community in San Jose, California, was not a coincidence. Rather, it stems from our proximity to major freight hubs.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The ACF rule that is under consideration will help alleviate the truck pollution in my neighborhood by requiring the public and private sectors to begin purchasing electric vehicles for their fleets in 2023. The ACF rule is only one step toward electrifying our transportation sectors, but it could be a model for other states and, eventually, the nation.

A street in the Northside neighborhood of San Jose, California, one block from the 101 Freeway’s Oakland Road entrance
Credit: Andrea Guerra/NRDC

Disadvantaged Communities in the Bay Area

My family lives within a mile of one of the Bay Area’s busiest freeways and next to one of the South Bay’s commercial hubs. It is common for heavy-duty trucks to pass by us during our routine errands, like going to the San Jose Flea Market or the supermarket. Diesel fumes fill the air my siblings, my cousins, and my neighbors breathe.

An illustration that captures Andrea Guerra’s brother’s experience living next to the 101 Freeway in San Jose’s Northside
Credit: Andrew Schubert for NRDC

California has a mapping system for evaluating what it calls “disadvantaged communities” like mine, based on cumulative pollution impacts and socioeconomic factors. Within each zip code given the red mark of “disadvantaged,” there are smaller sections of neighborhoods facing different pollutants. Currently, my neighborhood sits at the 93rd percentile for pollution burdens in California. The commercial hub just a few blocks away from my home ranks even higher.

Aside from overall impacts, the map also differentiates pollutants by category. My home possesses the distinction of being in the 92nd percentile for diesel pollution. We are also in the 99th percentile for toxic cleanups, 97th percentile for hazardous waste, and 97th percentile for solid waste pollution. If you look at the demographics of my neighborhood and the commercial hub, you’ll find that people of color make up most of the population—83 percent to be exact. The commercial hub has an Asian American majority and my neighborhood a Hispanic majority. We fit into a large-scale Bay Area pattern, replicated nationwide, where people of color often grow up and live with the cost of environmental injustices.

Disadvantaged communities as designated by the California EPA, based on cumulative pollution impacts and socioeconomic factors.

On Oakland Road and Commercial Street

Commercial hubs are hot spots for heavy truck traffic, from early morning to late evening. If you walk around my neighborhood, you’ll come across our city’s Pick-n-Pull (a junkyard for used auto parts), an Amazon warehouse, recycling centers, distribution centers, truck shops, mechanics, towing lots, and factories, all clustered together. For many of us, this represents economic activity, but it comes at a steep cost. It begs the question: Do you encounter this “economic activity” if you walk around your neighborhood? If not, why?

It wasn’t until I started riding the school bus in middle school that I noticed the drastic differences between my neighborhood and the more affluent suburbs, located far from freight hubs. I began to realize that my ability to recognize various truck categories was a product of my upbringing; for other people, trucks were just vehicles passing by on the freeways.

Later, once I began attending UC Merced, I realized how pervasive heavy-duty trucks were in the surrounding San Joaquin Valley and the larger Central Valley region. On my way to the Bay Area for the weekend, I would take the same route as the truckers. In these instances, I understood how dependent our economy, and by extension, our state, was on transportation.

During my time studying at UC Merced, I caught myself calling the San Joaquin Valley home. The communities of color that made up the city of Merced reminded me of my home in San Jose. I began learning about the air quality issues that pose an urgent concern to residents of the San Joaquin Valley. The Merced communities around me were breathing air contaminated with fine particulate matter, ranking in the 93rd percentile for this pollution burden. As time progressed, I witnessed new warehouses being built along my route to visit family back home. I also saw the growth of e-commerce in the Central Valley, leading to increased commercial truck congestion on our roads—something that only grew further as the pandemic hit. While e-commerce may be a powerful force for the economy, all I can wonder about is how it will add to the environmental burdens faced by Central Valley residents.

The San Jose Flea Market parking lot recently lost one of its parking lots to Amazon
Credit: Andrea Guerra/NRDC

Warehouses are a growing presence in many communities of color. Recently, Amazon added one in my neighborhood for its last-mile delivery service, right across the street from our flea market. The market has been under threat of gentrification for the past decade. It recently lost one of its parking lots to a new apartment building and the other to an Amazon delivery-truck garage. At first, the delivery trucks were just a trickle, but they have since grown into a flood. I stopped one morning to count more than 50 trucks parked there, most of which pull in and out on a daily basis.

A truck from the nearby Port of Long Beach passing by the Hudson Park community garden in Long Beach, California, February 20, 2020
Credit: Ann Johansson for NRDC

Clean Transportation, Clean Air

The transition away from fossil fuel trucks toward zero-emission vehicles is happening, but not fast enough. It also isn’t enough to gradually electrify transportation. We must adopt policies to electrify the vehicles operating in the most impacted communities now to address the urgent cry for clean air.

During my summer internship, I learned what a future with clean transportation means and became an advocate for the ACF rule, which is pushing to prioritize electrification in overburdened communities. I have grown up with the constant smell of old trucks burning their fuel, and I never imagined a day when all these trucks could be zero-emissions until now. While electric vehicles may not be the end-all solution for air pollution, they are an important start in reducing harmful diesel toxins.

My internship with NRDC ended up being a reality check on what is at stake for neighborhoods like mine. The ACF rule is one example of how we can start replacing diesel vehicles. We need a solid ACF rule that targets emissions reductions in overburdened communities rather than settling for the current proposal. And as I return to UC Merced, I’ll be watching out for a more aggressive ACF rule than the current proposal; one that gives my community the chance to breathe better air sooner rather than later. A more aggressive rule means children, like my brother, won’t have to worry about the air quality or spend a night at the ER, struggling to breathe.

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