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Biden’s opportunity to end diesel pollution of port communities

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Government, business and media attention continues to focus on the supply chain shortages exacerbated by the pandemic that have prompted the Biden administration to seek 24/7 operation of the nation’s ports. Overlooked, as is so often the case with environmental justice issues, are the likely health consequences for the Black, brown, indigenous and Asian-American communities living near the ports, roadways, train routes and warehouses that make up the country’s freight system.

As scientists, doctors and public health experts have known for decades, the diesel exhaust from the trucks, trains and ships carrying goods into and out of those sea and inland ports causes severe illnesses and premature deaths — aggravated asthma, lung cancer, heart disease and neurological disorders. One doctor who treated patients for years near one of the nation’s largest port complexes — called the area a “diesel death zone.”

It should be incumbent upon the Biden administration, given its oft-stated commitment to place environmental justice at the center of its reform priorities, to deal effectively with the dilemma: how to battle the supply chain-induced inflation from congested ports while protecting the substantially increased health dangers of increased port traffic. The obvious answer is to dramatically speed up the use of zero-emission equipment — from the ships entering the ports, to the cargo handling vehicles at the docks, to the rail terminals and heavy-duty trucks moving goods to communities all over the country. The technology has now proven itself.

Applying President Biden’s whole government approach, by expeditiously requiring and supporting the use of non-polluting equipment such as trucks, locomotives and ships, we could prevent the continued harm to environmental justice communities.

Specifically at this moment, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an opportunity to adopt a strong heavy-duty truck rule which the agency is in the process of reviewing this year. If the White House and the EPA truly prioritize environmental justice, this truck rule would make certain that truck emissions rapidly reduce to zero, while requiring that by 2035, 100 percent of trucks sold be zero emission vehicles. 

Fifteen states have already recognized the importance of moving ahead in the face of inaction. They signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU): “A Pledge to Develop Action Plans to eradicate toxic diesel emissions by 2050.” This has been a welcome development even if its timeline needs considerable speeding up. Moving to universal electric vehicle use is no longer a technology problem. It requires political will and an appropriate sense of urgency. The timeline for action to limit climate-change damage is short, but it is far shorter for port-adjacent communities who, right now, face the prospect of hyper-accelerated rates of serious illness and premature deaths.

For at least the past decade, there have been much published scientific and public health data as well as news coverage documenting the damage that continues to plague all who live with daily exposure to truck exhaust. We also have research from the trucking industry showing that electric trucks eliminate massive amounts of CO2, and by inference diesel fumes. According to the North America Council for Freight Efficiency, its “real world study of 13 electric trucks delivering freight across North America has found that if all U.S. and Canadian medium- and heavy-duty trucks became electric, about 100 million metric tons of CO2 would be saved from going into the atmosphere.”

A study commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that toxic nitrogen oxide and fine particulate matter (FPMs) truck emissions would be substantially reduced in New Jersey, home to the nation’s second-largest port complex. Electric trucks could thereby avoid 136,000 Illnesses and save New Jerseyans $11.6 billion.

Right now, we are in an environmental, public health and economic crisis that demands executive action. We need Biden to demonstrate leadership and direct the EPA, to move actionable policies and programs across the freight transportation sector starting with a strong heavy-duty truck rule. On Oct. 26, a national coalition of environmental justice organizations, the Moving Forward Network, provided the EPA with freight sector recommendations that the Agency should be taking.

Failure to act will impose enormous public health costs on low-income communities of color — more illness and death from heightened exposure to toxic pollution — as the nation struggles to overcome fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. We have an administration that claims to get it. Now they need to act on it.

Angelo Logan is the policy and campaign director of the Moving Forward Network, a national environmental justice coalition of sea and inland port-adjacent communities.

Tags Angelo Logan Commerce Environmental justice EPA Joe Biden Pollution Supply chain
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