Industry gets pushback on harm it brings to communities closest to transportation corridors.
By Steve Hendershot
Ray Molina leaves for work from his home in Cicero feeling like a field mouse amid a herd of buffalo, his little two-door Mitsubishi surrounded by enormous semitrucks. It’s not exactly a stampede, though, because both he and the truckers spend a lot of time sitting still—all of them frustrated by the train traffic emanating from the nearby Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard, which stretches nearly the town’s full width.
Molina, 28, has lived in Cicero for 15 years, so the routine is familiar. But recently he had an epiphany.
“I feel like the streets are for them and not for us,” he says.
Chicago’s freight industry is one of its foremost economic calling cards, and one that’s growing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the presence of freight traffic often comes along with unpleasant side effects such as pollution and congestion, leading to a difficult calculus for city leaders who are forced to weigh the industry’s benefits against those quality-of-life issues. The trade-offs affect low-income, minority communities most, because freight infrastructure is concentrated in those areas.
Cicero, for example, sits alongside one of the nation’s highest-volume freight corridors, one that includes rail lines and the Stevenson Expressway, alongside the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal—the man-made extension to the Chicago River that connects the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. Transportation and logistics firms represent more than $20 billion in value to the local economy, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, and employ 100,000 people.
That’s a serious impact. But a 2018 study led by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the communities closest to industry and transportation corridors suffered the area’s worst environmental effects, with Cicero right in the middle of the area’s most adversely affected corridor. The deep red splotches on the study’s map generally correspond with low-income, minority communities such as Cicero, where 18 percent of residents live in poverty. (The NRDC map is based on environmental factors such as particulate matter and a respiratory hazard index, but does not include health data, which it says isn’t available at the granular, spatial level needed to map health outcomes against environmental risks.)
“There are profound differences in air quality even block to block, with heightened hot spots of pollution around industrial facilities and truck-intensive facilities,” says Meleah Geertsma, senior attorney at the NRDC.
Molina is now taking part in a project sponsored by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, in which he and other residents walk Cicero’s streets with hand-held devices that measure air quality. The goal is to use hard data to win environmental concessions from nearby businesses or government regulators.
Freight companies “aren’t investing back in our community,” says Molina. “So we have to come together as a community and push these companies to give back.
TRICKLE BECOMES A FLOOD
When the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, or LVEJO, led a successful charge to force Chicago to close its last two coal-fired plants in 2012—both along the Interstate 55 corridor—the group’s leaders hailed a new era of improved air quality. Pollution from freight traffic wasn’t on its radar at that point. But gradually, a growing trickle of delivery trucks rolling through the Little Village neighborhood got LVEJO’s attention, as did a surge in the number of last-mile logistics facilities that loaded those trucks with goods from online retailers and sent them on their way.
That trickle soon became a flood; Amazon alone has leased more than 14 million square feet of warehouse space in the area this year. And the site of a shuttered coal plant in Little Village will soon be home to a 1 million-square-foot logistics center.
“It feels like there’s been a new warehouse every month. When is too many?” asks Kim Wasserman, LVEJO’s executive director. The city is “approving warehouse after warehouse, putting stress on the infrastructure in our communities with no clue or concept as to how many trucks are now on the roads, much less about what that change means for our neighborhoods.”
A rendering of the new Target warehouse being built on Pulaski Road where the Crawford Generating Station used to be.
Officials in Chicago and the suburbs are scrambling to better understand those environmental and community impacts, but that work takes time—even as pressure mounts in the form of new warehouses and trucks that seem to arrive with the same relentless efficiency as an Amazon Prime package. The stakes are especially high in communities such as Little Village, which, like many low-income communities, suffers from high rates of asthma.
“It’s hard for government to outpace industry and the market, but it’s our job to get out in front as best as possible and to set up the structures that hold (freight companies) accountable,” says Ald. Michael Rodriguez, whose 22nd Ward includes part of Little Village.
The City Council is considering an air quality ordinance that would impose pollution standards for industrial and freight users, but its fate is unclear. Teresa Córdova, chair of the Chicago Plan Commission, says she would like to see the city adopt standards specifically for logistics facilities. And CMAP, a state agency, is in the early stages of a truck traffic study aimed at determining “what sort of investments from the transportation infrastructure side need to be made to help mitigate some of those negative impacts,” says its executive director, Erin Aleman.
LVEJO’s Wasserman is pushing for a moratorium on new warehouses, while public agencies such as CMAP search for a path forward that balances environmental justice concerns with the economic benefits that freight centers can bring. Amazon, for example, has signaled that by the end of its current expansion spree, it will have more than 17,000 full-time warehouse jobs in the area.
One popular solution to air quality issues is to push logistics companies to electrify their fleets, starting with the smaller trucks that ferry packages from the distribution centers to customers’ homes. That shift is underway and will eventually have a pronounced effect on air quality, but the transition is slow. In the meantime, diesel trucks remain the norm. Amazon ordered 20,000 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter diesel vans in 2018—and in September, Mercedes’ parent, Daimler, agreed to pay $1.5 billion to settle a case alleging that its diesel vehicles, including the Sprinter, were rigged to cheat on emissions tests.
Even compliant diesel trucks are no match for electrics when it comes to pollution, which is why groups such as LVEJO and NRDC are pushing to accelerate the transition.
“People want to talk about ‘Oh, everything will be electrified in five to 10 years.’ None of them really want to talk about what this near-term build-out means for the communities that have already been bearing the brunt of heavy industry in the city, who already have disproportionate levels of respiratory disease, and who already don’t have money to buy health insurance,” says NRDC’s Geertsma.
Nor are electric trucks a silver-bullet solution, because they don’t address issues related to congestion. That leaves officials such as Rodriguez looking for a cocktail of programs including infrastructural changes that redirect truck traffic to help alleviate the burden that freight traffic places on communities.
Back in Cicero, the changes can’t happen fast enough for Molina, who chose to participate in the air-quality study in hopes that its results would show freight companies that they could do more for the communities in which they operate.
He also gets the complexity of the issue. On his commute, once he finally navigates a path between the semitrucks and reaches the highway, he heads to a logistics center in Melrose Park. There he begins his shift as an Amazon delivery driver, sitting up high behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.