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Truck Pollution Adds to Pilsen’s Environmental Woes

Heavy diesel truck traffic is likely causing health problems for the residents of Pilsen. The neighborhood is no stranger to pollution — a battle between the H. Kramer Co. and residents who want the smelter to reduce its air emissions has been going on for years.

link to little village pollution map
Young Activists Organizing as Today's Leaders (YAOTL) Pollution in Pilsen Map ( Click to View Map)

But Dorian Breuer of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) said H. Kramer isn’t the only polluter residents have to worry about — 60 percent of pollution in the Chicago area is from automobile emissions. And the most serious source of those emissions is likely the heavy truck traffic on Cermak Avenue, Ashland Avenue and other thoroughfares.

“Hundreds of trucks go up and down Cermak daily,” said Bill Umoffer, a dispatcher for a local cartage company. “There is a bunch of truck yards in that area. It must be one of the higher places in Chicago for big rig traffic.”

Black smoke coming from trucks’ smoke stacks includes a harmful form of pollution known as poly-aromatic-hydrocarbons. A study done by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that exposure to high levels of diesel exhaust fumes over many years increases the risk of lung cancer or premature mortality by 20 to 50 percent.

The Union of Concerned Scientists said diesel-powered vehicles are responsible for almost half the nitrogen oxides in the air and more than two-thirds of all soot emissions from transportation sources. Health concerns linked to diesel emissions of nitrogen oxides include irritation of the respiratory system, coughing, choking and reduced lung capacity.

Soot has even more health risks. It irritates the eyes, nose, throat and lungs and contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and even premature death. People most vulnerable to diesel soot pollution can be children, the elderly and individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions.

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and PERRO both urge their residents to report any dirty trucks to the state police and are asking city authorities to test trucks in the area.

“I’m from the suburbs, and the air is noticeably different,” said student and Pilsen resident Aniket Pandav, 22. “Living at Loomis and Cermak, I’ve seen a ton a of trucks drive by with smoke just billowing out of them, but who is reporting them?”

Illinois passed Public Act 91-0865 on July 1, 2000 to help improve the emissions from diesel-powered vehicles. The act enforces annual emission inspections for all diesel vehicles over 16,000 pounds; if the vehicle is not in compliance, notice is given to the operator to correct the problem.

If a vehicle is not fixed within 30 days, it is placed on the out-of-service list. Operating a vehicle that has been placed out-of-service results in a $1,000 fine. Illinois State Police did not return a call for this story.

Some say the best way to control emissions is a clean fuel alternative. The National Biodiesel Board argues that biodiesel — made from such products as plant oils, animal fats, used cooking oil and algae — is the best clean-burning alternative fuel on the market today.

The biodiesel board also points to independent studies by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Lab and U.S. Department of Agriculture that prove biodiesel performs comparably to petroleum diesel but with greater benefits to the environment and human health.

A major advantage of biodiesel is it can be used in most existing diesel engines and fuel injection equipment in blends up to 20 percent with little impact to operating performance.

Wandy Rodriguez, a local truck driver and Pilsen resident, thought biodiesel would ease the problem with pollution in the community, but the shortage of stations to buy biodiesel makes it harder on the drivers.

Though PERRO and other groups are active on pollution in Pilsen in general, currently no local groups are dedicated to reducing diesel emissions from trucks.

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