Reducing negative health impacts from transportation on communities of color

Antoine M. Thompson

When discussing the ongoing climate crisis, I often hear the proverbial phrase, “we are all in this together.”

However, the data on air pollution in conjunction with public health risks suggests we are not, in fact, “all in this together.” 

Nationwide, there is an environmental justice disparity between White and African American citizens. What is the root cause? Air pollution from diesel in the transportation sector. School and city buses, trash trucks, 18-wheelers, and off-road construction vehicles, are among the many fluxes of emissions from the transportation sector. Studies show, 60 percent of California’s, 52 percent of D.C.’s and 20 percent of New York State’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are from diesel combustion engines. 

Particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrous oxide (NOx) are the most prevalent GHG emissions nationwide. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, African American Marylanders experience 12 percent greater exposure to PM2.5 and NOx concentrations from transportation compared to the mean PM2.5 and NOx exposure for all Maryland residents. In contrast, White residents’ average exposure is 8 percent lower than the mean for the state. 

Subsequently, according to the Clean Air Task Force, breathing in PM2.5 and NOx on a daily basis exposes community members to an array of health complications such as heart attacks, asthma, cancer, and other respiratory illnesses that can lead to young children missing days at school, and their parents missing days at work. This suggests that communities of color are affected significantly more by the adverse effects of the public and private transportation sector. 

There is no magic cure-all. However, replacing fossil fuel-based diesel with biomass-based diesel, which would lower emissions, is one of the most important measures to decrease negative health disparities in communities of color. 

Biomass-based diesel use not only mitigates pollution but also drops fuel and healthcare costs. The recent Trinity Study, shows that, “in Washington, D.C., alone, replacing diesel fuel with biodiesel could produce health benefits valued at $262 million annually.” Another recent study by the University of Oxford suggests that with the economic advantages of low-carbon emission renewables, an alternative fuel future is inevitable. Green vehicles not only help mitigate transportation pollution’s impact on public health, but also lower diesel fuel costs. 

Low-carbon emission renewables correlate with a healthier community and money saved, common sense, responsibility and sustainability. 

There is important work happening across the country; groups like the Greater Washington Region Clean Cities Coalition (GWRCCC), are committed to addressing environmental equity and justice in the transportation industry. One of our current initiatives is decarbonizing fleets with biodiesel in Washington, D.C., with the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) Grant. The DERA grant’s goal is to retire 13 of D.C. Water’s diesel powered vehicles, replacing them with 12 B100 vehicles by the end of 2024. We are also collaborating with Clean Fuels Alliance America (CFAA) to host an Environmental Justice Community Forum Series in four cities nationwide to increase knowledge of the importance of biodiesel in environmental equity and justice. 

Here are other steps that individuals and the private and public sector can take to shepherd the transition to cleaner, healthier fuels:

  • Encourage private and public sector fleets to consider using biodiesel and renewable diesel as a cleaner, more cost effective alternative to fossil-based fuel for trucks.
  • Include marginalized groups, those that are the most impacted by environmental destruction and disasters, in clean transportation conversations and planning. 
  • Empower marginalized groups by providing access to information about grants, tax incentives, and other funding, and assist in the application process for these incentives.
  • Ensure that messaging on the benefits of clean transportation is available in multiple languages and includes solutions that are relevant to all communities.
  • Encourage state and local representatives to increase monetary incentives for clean transportation vehicles, making it easier for public and private sector fleets to implement the change.
  • Use Inflation Reduction Act funding for clean vehicles to help your business replace or retrofit diesel vehicles.
  • Work with local organizations, such as Clean Cities Coalitions, on educational outreach and programming.

As Professor George Lipsitz from the University of California says, “there is deep knowledge about environmental racism, but it is held unevenly.” Being informed is the key to empowerment, but being educated is only the key to visualizing the solution. To transform goals and aspirations into a clean future for all communities, there must be diligence and perseverance. The transportation industry can become cleaner and healthier for people and the planet, but it will take buy-in from individuals, organizations, and the government to make this goal a reality. Replacing fossil fuel-based diesel vehicles with biomass-based diesel vehicles is a solution that can be implemented today.

Antoine M. Thompson is the Executive Director of the Greater Washington Region Clean Cities Coalition (GWRCCC), a former NYS Senator and the former chair of the NYS Senate Committee of Environmental Conservation.


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