Pollution from truck exhaust is getting worse, and government must limit the hazard

As the demand for home deliveries grows, scores of warehouses have been built near homes and schools, bringing exhaust fumes closer to millions of people. More monitoring of emissions and regulatory power are part of the solution.

SHARE Pollution from truck exhaust is getting worse, and government must limit the hazard
Trucks carry freight from shipping containers like these at an intermodal transportation center in Cicero.

Trucks at an intermodal transportation center in Cicero.

Scott Olson/Getty

Chicago and other big U.S. cities have historically placed their dirtier businesses — mills, factories and the like — in poor and working-class communities.

Those decisions have been the cruelest of deals, often requiring residents to trade their health for the possibility of having a job in their neighborhood or town.

And it continues to happen, according to a new national report by the Environmental Defense Fund.

The report found that scores of warehouses — built in response to the surge in the fast-delivery market — are now being erected in neighborhoods, rather than just in industrial parks or on the edges of a community.

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As a result, exhaust fumes from idling delivery vehicles are being emitted ever closer to where people live, shop, play and go to school.

It’s become an even worse trade-off than before for nearby residents. Fumes from the vehicles can cause low birth rates, respiratory illnesses, dementia, and other public health problems.

We urge city officials and planners to be mindful of this report, given that Chicago’s becoming home to more and more warehouses built by Amazon and other delivery-based retailers.

And especially so, given the city’s propensity as of late to locate asphalt plants and metal scrappers in Black and Brown neighborhoods that already are beset by industrial-related health problems. The last thing these places need is to bear the burden of another variety of potential polluter.

A national problem is Chicago’s too

The nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund used mapping technology to determine that 15 million people in 10 states — including Illinois — live within a half-mile of a warehouse.

Of that number, more than one million were children under 5 years old.

“Warehouses are now crowded beside homes, schools, parks and community centers in more parts of the country than ever before,” Aileen Nowlan, the study’s author, wrote. “Each warehouse generates hundreds, if not thousands, of truck trips each day.”

The study found almost two million people — including 138,000 children under five — live within a half-mile of a warehouse.

In Illinois, the group found a “disproportionate” amount of Illinois’s 2,401 warehouses were located near the homes of Black, Latino, Asian and American Indian people.

Illinois’ numbers were particularly acute, about twice as much as would be expected given the state’s population, the organization said.

Communities such as Joliet and Elwood were particularly affected.

“This is the place where all the railroads meet,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association in Chicago. This is where transfers take place. There are a lot of containers coming from the East and West coasts to here and being reshuffled and resent, some on trains, but a lot regionally, 500 miles in every direction on trucks.”

Chicago agreement is model for needed regulatory power

What’s the solution? The Environmental Defense Fund is calling for more emissions monitoring of warehouses, using existing satellite technology.

The organization also wants a free and updated national database of current and proposed warehouses. For proposed warehouses, the database would include disclosure of the planned location, along with projected truck traffic and expected emissions.

The database would also list existing warehouse locations, nearby arterial roads, number of loading docks, expected truck trips, ownership and secured lenders.

But what’s also needed — in Chicago, at least — is more regulatory power when it comes to equitably locating these facilities.

And a binding three-year agreement signed this month between the city and the federal government might be the solution.

Under the agreement, the city promises to reform its planning, zoning and land-use practices when it comes to locating potential polluters.

The agreement is the result of a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development probe that found the city discriminates against its residents by using its power to help polluting businesses move to low-income communities of color.

Central to HUD’s case was the Lightfoot administration’s 2019 approval of the relocation of metal scrapper General Iron from Lincoln Park to South Deering, a neighborhood of mostly Black and Brown residents.

Under the agreement, the city departments that oversee zoning, urban planning, development, transportation, buildings and housing will have to produce an “environmental justice action plan” by Sept. 1.

The plan must show how city officials will protect neighborhoods from “burdens associated with intensive industrial and transportation uses.”

The agreement with the feds has room enough to include examining the location of these warehouses and their potential hazards.

We encourage city officials to do just that.

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