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trucking pollution

José Miguel Acosta Córdova and Paulina Vaca stand at the intersection of Pulaski Road and 41st Street in Chicago’s Archer Heights neighborhood. A recent study found that over 24 hours, more than 5,000 trucks and buses pass through this spot.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

‘A sea of trucks’ disproportionately pollutes Black and brown neighborhoods in Chicago

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Paulina Vaca stands at the corner of Pulaski Road and 41st Street, one of Chicago’s busiest intersections for truck traffic.

“I’m seeing a sea of trucks,” said Vaca, the project associate with the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology. “1-2-3-4-5-6-7, just off my field of vision and more coming and going.”

In just one hour, at the day’s peak, about 430 trucks pass through this spot in Archer Heights, a mostly Latino community on the Southwest Side. Trucks in cities belch pollution. In Chicago — North America’s largest freight hub — Black and brown communities living near the city’s industrial corridor are disproportionately paying for it with their health.

A new report from the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and CNT measures the extent of the city’s truck traffic by counting trucks moving through one Cicero neighborhood and 17 Chicago neighborhoods, from Hegewisch to Albany Park. Using sensors installed in 35 spots, they counted over 24 hours the number of medium-and heavy-duty trucks. Over the course of a day, 5,159 trucks and buses were recorded in Archer Heights — the most of any neighborhood.

José Miguel Acosta Córdova, the transportation justice program manager with the LVEJO, said the data points to some key questions the city and state needs to answer. “When are there too many warehouses and when are there too many trucks?” he asked.

More than $1 trillion in goods move through Chicago by way of truck, train, ship and plane every year, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. All six of the nation’s major freight railroads converge in Chicago. Millions of tons of cargo come through the region by way of O’Hare Airport and the canal connecting the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

But being an economic juggernaut comes at a health cost. The Respiratory Health Association ranked Illinois fifth out of all states for the highest number of deaths from diesel engine pollution per capita in 2023.

Diesel is what, in large part, moves freight around, according Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for RHA.

“What comes out of the tailpipe of those engines is a collection of air pollutants: everything from nitrogen oxides to fine particulate matter, and even carbon dioxide,” Urbaszewski said. Exposure to these pollutants are associated with a host of medical issues, ranging from respiratory to cardiovascular health impacts.

Acosta Córdova said Illinois needs to adopt tighter truck regulations that are already in use in California and several other states. These policies would raise emission standards for tailpipe pollution and set a path for zero-emission trucks.

Vaca said that this new trucking data she and her colleagues compiled won’t surprise longtime residents of the city’s industrial corridors. But it is hard evidence that she hopes will help convince elected leaders that air pollution is an issue of life or death.

“Having these numbers, it’s really crucial to then advocate for more electric vehicles,” Vaca said. “To use this to advocate against permitting more industry in areas where it’s already overburdened.”

More than 1,000 lives and over $10 billion could be saved annually if the Chicago region electrified approximately 30% of all light and heavy-duty vehicles, according to a study published last fall by researchers at Northwestern University.

“We found that the majority of the health benefits from those reductions in pollution occur in environmental justice communities or communities of color, or disadvantaged communities in Chicago,” said Daniel E. Horton, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern.

Last Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced finalized federal emissions standards for heavy vehicles that would require manufacturers to limit pollution from heavy trucks beginning with 2027 vehicle models. It’s estimated the new policy will prevent 1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere. But Acosta Córdova said the guidelines do not go far enough to address the climate crisis. In Illinois, it’ll be years before residents see relief from freight driven air pollution.

“The biggest thing we want to see out of this is more data collection,” Acosta Córdova said. “But, also eventually, [we want] a full transition to zero emission trucks.”

A previous version of this story identified José Acosta Córdova as now the senior transportation policy analyst. He is now the transportation justice program manager.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco covers climate change and the environment for WBEZ and Grist. Follow him on X at @__juanpab.

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