New EPA rule means cleaner trucks are coming. Will it be enough to help Southwest Detroit?

Even if trucks emit less pollution, changes could take years to make a difference. Some residents want the city to address issues like idling and truck routes through residential areas now.  

Keith Rodgerson, who lives near the intersection of 25th street and Toledo feels his city is moving in the wrong direction. 

He’s watched a steep increase in the number of heavy-duty trucks in his neighborhood after Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration negotiated a land deal with the Moroun family, giving it property near Grand Blvd. and Toledo in exchange for parcels needed for the Stellantis expansion on the east side of Detroit. And those trucks, particularly when they idle in residential neighborhoods like his, bring with them a large amount of pollution.

But a new rule put forward by the Environmental Protection Agency in December may offer some relief. 

The rule change, which is the first to update tailpipe standards for heavy-duty truck emissions in more than 20 years, will cut smog- and soot-forming pollutants by more than 80% over current limits, beginning with the model year 2027. 

When Raquel Garcia, executive director for the advocacy group Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, heard the news, she felt a sense of relief.

“It just feels deeply personal to the work that we’ve been doing,” said Garcia, whose group advocates for residents who deal with poor air quality, noise, and damage to homes caused by the high volume of heavy-duty truck traffic in the area.

Importantly for Southwest Detroit, the new rules will require nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel engine emissions to be reduced to 35 parts per million (ppm), an 83 percent reduction from currently allowed levels.

Nitrogen oxide pollution from diesel vehicles is a major driver of air pollution-related deaths and also contributes to the formation of ozone, which can cause heart disease and trigger asthma attacks and other lung problems. Environmental advocates hope the new rules could benefit a city that was recently listed as the nation’s number one “asthma capital” by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

“The change from 200 to 35 PPM for NOx is historic and brave to environmental communities like Detroit that live in a toxic chemical soup produced by industry and the transportation that moves the products that make this country thrive,” SDEV said in a statement.

But Garcia also voiced concern about how the EPA would go about helping truck owner-operators, many of whom are based in southwest Detroit, transition to cleaner technologies.

“We rely on trucking,” she said. “A lot of people in Detroit rely on it.”

Her takeaway from a recent EPA call is that the agency is serious about working with trucking companies to transition to cleaner vehicles with funding from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act. The agency could also take significant action on greenhouse gas emissions later this year, potentially expediting the transition to electric freight vehicles and dramatically reducing tailpipe emissions in areas with high volumes of truck traffic.

Will it make a difference for southwest?

Some residents question how much impact the new rules will have, with the new Gordie Howe International Bridge set to bring even more truck traffic to a neighborhood that already sees a hefty amount of it from the Ambassador Bridge and the freeways that cut through the area. 

They say lax enforcement of traffic routes and idling ordinances have allowed trucks to effectively take over their neighborhood, bringing with them air pollution, noise, and structural damage to homes on account of the constant shaking.

Heavy-duty diesel trucks cause about 50% of the nation’s ozone pollution from vehicles and about a quarter of the transportation sector’s total carbon pollution. These emissions are produced at ground level, next to homes, schools, and businesses, and are often concentrated in marginalized communities, with one study showing that diesel trucks produced half of the nitrogen dioxide pollution in 52 U.S. cities. Increasingly long supply chains and a growing reliance on home delivery mean freight emissions are expected to increase without the sort of intervention contained in the new ruling.

Margo T. Oge, a former EPA official and chair of the board of directors for the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), told Planet Detroit that it’s significant that the EPA’s rule change has attracted support from the American Lung Association and that manufacturers like Daimler Truck and diesel engine manufacturer Cummins believe the 83% reduction is an achievable target.

But the new standards have attracted some criticism for not going far enough, falling short of California’s recently passed regulations that would cut NOx emissions by 90 percent.

The EPA says its cuts will decrease NOx pollution from trucks by as much as 60% by 2045, a gradual decrease in air pollution that may seem insignificant for those dealing with asthma and other problems today.

“This probably never ends,” said Thomasenia Weston, who lives on Livernois Avenue in Southwest Detroit. Weston, who has asthma, has seen truck traffic increase in recent years and is dealing with damage to her foundation and stress cracks in her walls that she believes are the result of the constant shaking.

“Maybe my grandchildren might see that benefit,” she said of the new NOx rules. But increasingly, she feels like she and her grandchildren need to move away from Michigan, saying that her sinus and breathing issues improve whenever she leaves the state.

Some in the trucking industry are also skeptical of the new rules, albeit for very different reasons. Collin Long, Director of Government Affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association (OOIDA), said independent operators were hit hard by a 2010 change to truck emission and fuel economy standards, leading them to pay more for diagnostics and repair. Southwest Detroit is home to more than a few such businesses, with Garcia from SDEV saying she personally knows 15 owner-operators.

However, Oge cautions that the current rule change shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of the 2010 changes. That’s because the federal Inflation Reduction Act is making billions of dollars in grants available for clean transportation and reducing air pollution in disadvantaged communities. She also suggested that advocates concerned that the EPA’s NOx rule doesn’t go far enough should push for Michigan to copy the regulations adopted by states like California and Washington. The ICCT found that if rules similar to California’s new regulations were adopted nationwide, they could prevent $1.3 trillion in health damages between 2027 and 2050

Garcia says the SDEV plans to help truck owners obtain funding to transition to cleaner vehicles in Southwest Detroit.  She would also like to see the city show more leadership on air quality issues in Southwest, particularly at the Port of Detroit, which could involve reducing the use of diesel trucks and relying more on rail transportation. She suggested that the EPA institute a performance plan for Detroit to track how well it’s addressing environmental problems like air pollution.

Such oversight might help address the concerns of Detroiters like Keith Rodgerson, who criticized the Duggan administration for being “friendly to the expansion of noxious uses inside neighborhoods”.

“It just seems like for us here in Mexicantown, things are getting worse and will continue to get worse,” he said, “regardless of any action that the EPA takes.”


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