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May 04, 2021   |   Diesel Technology Forum

Policy Insider

A Tale of Two Cities: Achieving Clean Air for Communities Most in Need

To provide improvements in air quality for environmental justice communities, we need to weigh available near-term options against longer term solutions.

Inequities in racial, social and environmental justice are now at the forefront of the national conversation. For some, the movement of goods and commercial vehicles are the primary concern in their communities, particularly those around major transportation corridors and port areas. 

To provide improvements in air quality for these communities, we need to weigh available near-term options against longer term solutions. While zero-emissions technology is coming for some commercial trucks and equipment, many hurdles remain. In the meantime, there are solutions that are available right now that will reduce emissions by over 98 percent and deliver the promise of cleaner air.

This article will present two strategies to achieve clean air progress for communities located near freight facilities that have been promised cleaner air.

Waiting to Reduce Emissions in the Ironbound District in New Jersey

One community in New Jersey has been waiting for promised improvements in air quality for over a decade and they will likely wait even longer. Communities located in the Ironbound District in New Jersey encompass marine terminals in the massive Port Authority of New York-New Jersey. Truck traffic from these marine terminals has been identified as a leading contributor to poor air quality in these communities. The heavy-duty Class 8 trucks moving port cargo are often of a much older generation. Emissions inventories conducted by the Port estimate that roughly 60 percent of the thousands of trucks that call the port every day are of an older generation of technology.

The 40 percent of trucks that are of a newer generation of technology meeting the U.S. EPA’s near-zero emissions tailpipe standard demonstrate an impressive pollution fighting record. When it comes to cutting fine particle emissions, near-zero emissions diesel trucks generate nearly the same emissions as a zero-emissions demonstration truck since most of the fine particle footprint from truck operations is attributable to brake and tire wear.  

Despite the impressive and proven track record of near-zero emissions diesel technology, community activists in the Ironbound District have demanded the introduction of battery-electric trucks. By their own estimation, these trucks are not available today, will not be available next year and are likely not to become available for many years. These battery-electric trucks would also require a regional network of Class 8 truck charging infrastructure that is still in development.

While we wait for the promise of a zero-emissions future, why should communities in the Ironbound District continue to wait possibly another decade for cleaner air when ready-to-go solutions nearly on par with electric trucks are ready today? Accelerating the turnover of the oldest highest-emitting trucks with new advanced diesel will immediately reduce smog and particulate emissions while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Doing the Most Today to Deliver Cleaner Air Now with Proven Technologies

Communities in population dense Queens, NY are not waiting one second for cleaner air when ready-to-go near-zero emissions solutions are ready right now. Communities located in the Jamaica section of Queens, NY are also located near significant passenger and freight rail hubs. Rail networks serving the busy passenger transit Long Island Railroad, New York and Atlantic short line freight operations serving greater Long Island along with NY Department of Sanitation and Waste Management freight rail services all come together in this one community in Queens. Residents experience 24-7 rail operations as line-haul locomotives arrive and depart frequently while switch locomotives operate to facilitate these operations. Much of these locomotives are powered by engines developed before emission controls were ever required and have been identified as a leading contributor to poor air quality. Local community leaders understood the immediate and beneficial impact of replacing much older locomotive engines with new near-zero emissions diesel options. Just a single near-zero emissions diesel engine replacement yields nearly 1 ton of fine particle emission reductions annually.

While zero-emissions solutions for rail applications are on the drawing board and some are in demonstrations, communities in Queens are not going to wait while solutions exist today to reduce emissions upwards of 90 percent.

As we look for leadership and policies that do the most for communities most in need of cleaner air, let us balance the needs of what we can today with proven and available near-zero emissions technologies while we wait for the promise of a zero-emissions future.


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Ezra Finkin
Director, Policy

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