Idling cars are the tools of the devil

vehicle exhaust
vehicle exhaust

Vehicle exhaust contains a number of harmful pollutants, including fine particulate matter, and it is increasingly the primary source of urban air pollution (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Thus far, El Niño has more or less kept winter at bay here in Cleveland. Well, that’s all changing this week. I guess once Mother Nature heard an overgrown rodent said we were getting an early spring this year, she got pissed.

Winter is back with a vengeance. We’re going to see temperatures drop to perhaps their lowest point of the year this weekend, and forecasters are calling for five or six separate fronts to bring snow over the next week or so. All of this should help to cut into our substantial snow deficit. As of Monday, the National Weather Service had recorded just 11.2 inches of snow this winter, roughly 26 inches below normal. That deficit has already shrunk by one-fifth, and it will continue to decrease.

The return of winter means a few things. First, our profuse application of road salt – with all its inherent environmental consequences – means that everything will adopt a fine coating of sodium chloride. Second, those of us walking through the city will trudge through unshoveled sidewalks and try to avoid the ubiquitous puddles of filthy, half-melted slush, which could either be an inch deep or the bottomless pit that Ozzie Smith fell into on The Simpsons. And third, people will idle their cars left and right. The other day, I walked past a St. Ignatius security guard who was idling his car in a parking lot on Lorain Avenue. When I came back an hour later, he was still idling his vehicle, all the while straddling three separate parking spots (including a handicapped space).

Now, I see the appeal of vehicle idling in the winter, but I don’t really understand the level of passion that idlers bring to the table. A few weeks ago, our local ABC affiliate, WEWS, reposted an article on why drivers should avoid idling their cars during the winter. Within a few hours, the pro-idling commenter horde descended to inform the reporters just how wrongheaded they were.

I know – never read the comments – but individuals insisted that “this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. Warming up car by idle (sic) is very good” and “cold oil will destroy your engine.” And, of course, the coup de grace: “Stupid article with gas prices at a (sic) all time low I could careless (sic) if I waste gas warming up my car especially when the windows are frosted or frozen.”

Let’s assume for a minute that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and basically every other authority on this topic, including car-makers, know more about vehicle idling than random internet commenters. Can we marshal the available information to help dissuade some of these pervasive myths on idling? Of course we can. So let’s do that.

“Warming up car by idle is very good”

This one is perhaps the most common idling myth, and, like all good myths, there is a kernel of truth here.

The EPA says that, on average, cars get 12% worse gas mileage during cold weather. However, this was a much bigger issue for older model years, particularly those that employed carburetors. Modern fuel injection systems automatically adjust to exterior weather conditions. Furthermore, cars warm up twice as quickly when driven as they do while stationary. It may be nice to sit in a car that you warmed up with your remote start on frigid winter mornings, but you’re not doing your car any favors.

“Cold oil will destroy your engine”

No, no it won’t. Again, this myth is ubiquitous, but it’s highly out of date. Modern, synthetic engine oils do not need to warm up first. They can flow properly at temperatures as low as -40°F. It may have been cold as hell last February, but we still live in Cleveland, not Barrow or Yellowknife.

Beyond this, idling is actually harder on your car than driving it normally. While batteries commonly stall out in cold temperatures, idling does more long-term damage. As they idle, car batteries continue to expend energy to the car’s components. This process leads to deeper engine cycling, which forces the battery to discharge more energy during normal engine operation. Discharged batteries, in turn, produce less power; this means that subsequent engine starts will require even more energy and take longer, which will shorten a battery’s lifespan.

Idling is hard on cars in other ways as well. It is true that a number of vehicle components, such as the starter, are designed to last a set number of starts. This would seem to suggest that idling your car would place less wear and tear on a vehicle over time. But again, this is not true. According to Natural Resources Canada, idling your car for just 46 seconds is worse and more costly than turning it off and back. In addition to straining the battery, idling engines do not run at an optimal temperature, which leads to the incomplete combustion of gasoline. This leaves fuel residue in the engine – not to mention producing more pollution – and can cut fuel economy by around 5%.

“I could careless if I waste gas warming up my car”

Would that I were so wealthy. But let’s consider exactly how much gas this gentleman – who I assume is Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly – is wasting by idling.

Every two minutes that a vehicle spends idling consumes the same amount of gas as driving two miles. The average vehicle spends 60-73 hours idling per year, which accounts for 5-7% of total fuel use. Based on information from the Argonne National Laboratory, if a person idles for 10 minutes per day, s/he can waste up to 30-50 gallons of gas per year.

The true costs of vehicle idling

But, if you’re familiar with anything I’ve ever written, I’m more interested in trying to figure out the social costs of our idling habits. If everyone in Cleveland idles so profligately, what are the effect on the larger scale? How might all of that extra, inefficient fuel use add to the costs of air pollution and climate change?

With that question in mind, I decided to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. According to a 2009 study from Amanda Carrico and colleagues, the average American idles approximately 16.1 minutes per day. More than half of that idle time (8.2 minutes) occurs due to traffic lights, congestion, stop signs, and the like, so we’ll eliminate it. This leaves 7.9 minutes of idling per day – 4.2 minutes for warming up the car and 3.7 minutes while waiting (to pick some up one, in the drive thru, etc.).

Next, we need to determine the population of passenger cars in the Cleveland area. According to data from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, there were 2,130,794 passenger vehicles registered in the seven counties that make up Northeast Ohio last year. Of course, not all of those vehicles will idle that amount each day, so I will adjust these numbers to reflect the percentage of the general population that reported idling for warming (48%) and waiting (46%) for more than 30 seconds at a time in the Carrico et al. study.

We now need to figure out how much pollution and fuel cars consume while idling. Fortunately, the EPA has provided this information, though they do not have estimates for particulate matter emissions (which are, by far, the most harmful conventional pollutant in vehicle exhaust).

idling emissions calculations

Annual vehicle idling emissions in the seven counties of Northeast Ohio (author’s estimates).

Using information from the US Department of Transportation (updated to 2015$) and the EPA’s social cost of carbon, we can estimate the total public health costs of these idling emissions per year.

idling cost calculations

Total annual costs of vehicle idling in Northeast Ohio (author’s estimates).

So, by my (admittedly rough) estimates, vehicle idling carries social costs of more than $58 million per in Northeast Ohio alone. While the vast majority of these costs come from wasted fuel, there are still nearly $3.5 million in air pollution related costs. I could go down the rabbit hole of trying to estimate the morbidity and mortality costs associated with these pollutants, but I’ll spare you the arm-waving wonkery. But let’s not pretend that this wasted fuel has no effects. Oil extraction has significant environmental consequences throughout the process from well to tank, and – given that is a nonrenewable resource – all of this valuable fuel could have been put to more productive uses. Waste is waste is waste.

As all the available evidence and my calculations show, vehicle idling is far from beneficial. On the contrary, is wasteful, costly, and illegal in many places. If this one small component of driving carries this large of an impact on our region, can you imagine the aggregate costs of our cars? Comfort is important, but it’s not everything. So turn the damn engine off next time. Your lungs and wallet will thank you.

If you want to improve air quality, end the sprawl

interchange los angeles
interchange los angeles

The I-10/I-110 Interchange in Los Angeles (courtesy of Politico).

For centuries, people have fled the supposed squalor of cities in pursuit of the fresh air that is so vital for our health and well-being. Before Louis Pasteur’s development of germ theory, most scientists and physicians subscribed to the belief that miasmas – essentially the foul smells associated with rotting organic matter – were the source of major diseases. The cure for illness, they argued, was for people to escape cities to get fresh country air.

Doctors prescribed fresh air as a treatment for various illnesses into the 20th century. American physicians encouraged their patients suffering from tuberculosis to head West in pursuit of the restorative benefits of the clean air. This movement helped foster the growth of many prominent Western cities, including Denver and Phoenix.

The clean air premium

Today, we tend to refer to the deleterious emissions that plague many cities by a different term: air pollution. But that same underlying precept – that we need to leave cities behind in the pursuit of fresh air and better health – remains.

Multiple studies demonstrate that people view air quality as an amenity and are willing to pay for it. According to economists Kennethy Chay and Michael Greenstone, reductions in particulate matter during the 1970s were “associated with a $45 billion aggregate increase in housing values,” while a separate study found that Americans were willing to pay $149–$185 for a one unit reduction in particulate matter levels.

Clearly, we place a premium on the concept of “fresh air.” But could our pursuit of this good actually be making air quality worse for others?

How might sprawl affect air quality?

The link between our sprawl-based development patterns and air pollution seems pretty obvious on the surface. The more we spread out, the more we have to drive to reach workplaces, schools, stores, entertainment venues, etc. All of this adds to vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and each additional mile we drive increases our mobile emissions.

But perhaps it’s not as simple as it seems. Moving people away from the worst polluters was clearly beneficial for public health. And pollution levels are typically higher in denser areas with high traffic volumes.

Additionally, one of the main targets of the landmark 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) was vehicle emissions. As a result, cars purchased today run more than 90% cleaner than those manufactured 46 years ago. This trend has helped to offset the rise in VMT. Thanks to these regulations, emissions of carbon monoxide and ground-level ozone have fallen by 85% and 33%, respectively, since 1980, while particulate matter emissions have declined by more than one-third since 1990. These improvements have occurred even as VMT has nearly trebled from 1.12 trillion when the 1970 CAAA was signed to just under 3.14 trillion last year.

annual vmt

Rolling 12-month change in vehicle miles traveled in the US (courtesy of St. Louis Federal Reserve).

With all of this in mind, I decided to comb through the literature to see what the best available science says on the relationship between sprawl and air pollution, and what I found may surprise you.

Just kidding, no it won’t.

Sprawl and air quality: The evidence

One of the first scholars to explore this relationship, in depth, was Brian Stone, Jr., who published his findings back in 2008. He probed the relationship between the number of days that ground-level ozone concentrations exceeded the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) and sprawl index scores for 45 large cities from 1990 to 2002.

Stone, Jr. argued there are three major reasons that urban form could affect ozone levels. First, it can influence emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the two pollutants that combine to form ground-level ozone. Secondly, sprawling cities are more prone to the urban heat island effect, which can increase the ambient temperatures in urban areas by more than 20°F; higher temperatures facilitate the formation of ozone. Thirdly, large, sprawling cities are more likely to have a broad ozone monitoring network, which may increase the odds that high ozone levels are observed.

The study found a strong, statistically significant link between urban form and air quality, even when controlling for weather conditions. According to Stone, Jr.’s results, a one standard deviation increase a city’s sprawl index score produced 5.6 more ozone exceedance days per year. In turn, a one standard deviation increase in population density – one of the four components of the sprawl index – was associated with 8 fewer exceedance days. Based on his findings, he notes that “urban form is significantly associated with both ozone precursor emissions and ozone exceedances…Overall, the most sprawling cities were found to experience over 60% more high ozone days than the most compact cities.”

To put that into perspective, Cleveland has a composite sprawl score of 85.62, meaning it is just over 14 units less compact than the average metro area. If it was as dense as Madison, Wisconsin (136.69) or Detroit (137.17), we would have had 11.2 fewer ozone exceedance days per year through 2002. Given that we averaged 20.5 exceedances per year from 1997-2002, this would represent a 55% reduction.

Strengthening the connection

Multiple subsequent studies support these findings. A 2013 article from Bradley Bereitschaft and Keith Debbage examined the connections between ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions and five separate sprawl indices. Each of the indices computed sprawl in a slightly different way, accounting for various measures of urban form. The authors folded these into two key measures – urban continuity (the degree to which the urban landscape is fragmented) and urban complexity (the degree of the “jaggedness” of the urban boundary).

The authors note that each of the sprawl indices produced a significant connection between sprawl and pollution levels. A one standard deviation increase in the most prominent sprawl index score was associated with 3.4% and 7.8% increases in ozone and PM2.5, respectively. The density of residential properties appears to be a particularly important correlate for air quality. Increasing residential density by one standard deviation lowers ozone and PM2.5 levels by 8% and 16%, respectively. This change in density can also lower on-road CO2 emissions by an average of 1.9 million tons. Using a social cost of carbon of $37 per ton, this produces social benefits of $70.3 million.

Bereitschaft and Debbage argue that “an increase in residential density might improve air quality and contribute to a reduction in per capita CO2 emissions at the metropolitan scale primarily by decreasing automotive dependency and tailpipe emissions.”

Additionally, the authors examined the connection between urban form and the direct emissions of NOx, VOCs, and PM2.5. Their results are striking. A one standard deviation rise in urban shape complexity increases PM2.5 emissions by 3,055 tons (12.4%) per year. Using EPA damage factors for on-road emissions, this additional pollution would cause 128 to 287 premature deaths and carry public health costs of up to $2.47 billion per year.

If more sprawl leads to worse air quality, will reversing that trend in Rust Belt cities lead to cleaner air? Stone, Jr. looked at this issue in a 2007 piece for the Joumal of the American Planning Association. He studied how shifting from a business as usual scenario to a more compact growth approach modeled on Portland could affect VMT and air quality in 11 Midwestern cities through 2050. By shifting from our current sprawl-heavy trajectory, Cleveland could lower household VMT by 9% and reduce emissions of CO, NOx, VOCs, and PM2.5 by anywhere from 7-9.2% each.

All the evidence points to one conclusion – sprawl is exacerbating air pollution. In our haste to find fresh air, we’ve simply made things worse for those who do not have the means to keep moving farther and farther out.

As Bereitschaft and Debbage put it, “Planning for density therefore becomes an issue of environmental justice, particularly at the metropolitan level. Simulations suggest that by relocating to peripheral suburban areas, residents might reduce their exposure to certain air pollutants…[while] simultaneously contributing to a decline in regional air quality by increasing the total volume of automotive traffic.”

I’ve argued before that, despite our poor air quality, almost no one in Greater Cleveland seems interested in talking about the issue and how we might solve it. Perhaps that’s because, unlike in the past, the real source of the problem isn’t just some large coal-fired power plant or steel mill. No, the problem is our individual driving habits. We’ve met the enemy, and it is us. Unless we face up to that fact, we aren’t going to change things for the better.

Air pollution adds to a number of Cleveland’s ills. So why does no one talk about it?

vehicle exhaust
vehicle exhaust

Vehicle exhaust contains a number of harmful pollutants, including fine particulate matter, and it is increasingly the primary source of urban air pollution (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

A few weeks ago, Rachel Dissell and Brie Zeltner from The Plain Dealer released their roughly 26-part series,Toxic Neglect,” which provided an incredible deep dive into the City of Cleveland’s chronic lead poisoning crisis. The series is truly outstanding journalism, something that is becoming increasingly rare in Northeast Ohio these days, and enough to max out your rage meter. If lines like “[Cleveland puts] more money into baiting for mosquitoes to curb West Nile virus and to prevent rabies in raccoons than we put into lead poisoning” and “national policy for decades has been to use primarily poor, minority children as household lead detectors” don’t enrage you, you don’t have a heart.

Dissell and Zeltner’s thorough investigation shines a light upon a major issue that is too often ignored in this region – the fact that at least 2,000 Cleveland children are poisoned by lead each year – and documents the City’s completely inability (desire?) to mitigate the crisis. They attempted to put a price tag on the problem, noting that lead reduces IQ and lifetime earnings potential, increasing healthcare costs, and contributes to violent crime in a city already plagued by them.

Dissell and Zeltner do an incredible job of displaying how the environment into which Cleveland children are born and in which they are raised irrevocably affects their futures. Their investigation centers on the city’s legacy of lead paint in its aged housing stock, the chief source of lead in the region. While airborne lead used to be an urban scourge, tetraethyl lead was finally phased out of all gasoline in the US in 1996. While much of that lead remains in our contaminated soils to this day, it is no longer the main culprit.

This series is just the latest in a string of great work from Zeltner, including earlier explorations of childhood asthma and infant mortality. But whereas it makes sense to minimize the role of air pollution in the lead series, this omission makes far less sense in the other two cases. We know that it is a important driver for both. But, for some reason, people in Northeast Ohio keep turning a blind eye to a problem that, quite literally, is all around them at all times.

It was with all of this in the back of my mind that I read a recent article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that examined the impacts of vehicle emissions on the cognitive development of children. The study, written by a group of public health professionals in the Boston area, focused on how exposure to pollution from traffic during late pregnancy and early childhood affects the brains of children later in life. The authors looked at the results of cognitive analyses for 1,109 children, aged 6-11 years old, who were part of an existing health study from 1999-2002. Because they tapped into this cohort, the authors had access to data on a number of variables, including household income, mother’s IQ, exposure to lead, and whether or not the mother smoked. Accordingly, they were able to control for each of these factors when conducting their analysis.

They split their sample into three main groups: those children living less than 50 meters from a major roadway, those living between 50 and 200 meters away, and those living more than 200 meters away. These distances are significant, as coarse and fine particulate matter rarely travels more than 10 to 100 meters in the air before settling back to the surface. This allowed them to examine how children growing up in close proximity to heavy daily automobile traffic would fair later in life. The results were stark:

Among children residing primarily in urban and suburban Eastern Massachusetts, prenatal residential proximity to major roadways (< 50 m) predicted lower nonverbal intelligence, verbal intelligence, and visual motor abilities in mid-childhood.

Those children living closest to heavily trafficked roads scored, on average, 7.5 points lower on nonverbal IQ tests, 3.8 points lower on verbal IQ tests, and 5.3 points lower on visual motor skills tests. In other words, the cognitive effects of growing up alongside a major roadway is comparable to an increase from the 5th percentile of childhood blood levels to the 95th percentile. In fact, at a 6.9 point decline in IQ from lead, the effects of traffic appear to be even greater.

Interestingly, the authors were unable to find a statistically significant effect of traffic-related air pollution on childhood IQ, perhaps because the effects of pollution were so tightly entangled with socioeconomic factors.

But the evidence does not stop there. In a 2008 study using another cohort of children from Boston, Suglia and colleagues looked at the connection between early childhood exposure to black carbon, a particularly harmful component of fine particulate matter, and cognitive function when children were 8 to 11 years old. They found that children exposed to high levels of traffic-related black carbon pollution saw their IQ scores fall by 3 points, even when controlling for socioeconomic variables, exposure to tobacco smoke, and blood lead levels. The authors noted that this IQ decrement was comparable to those experienced by children born to smokers (4 points) and by children poisoned by lead (1-5 points). Additionally, a separate 2011 study found a connection between prenatal exposure to traffic pollution and an elevated risk of childhood autism.

All told, mounting evidence suggests that children exposed to high levels of traffic-related pollution before and after birth are far more likely to have lower IQs and to suffer from developmental disorders. Just because we rarely see visible pollution like that from the mid-20th century these days does not mean that the problem is behind us.

It’s incredibly important for a city like Cleveland, which is struggling to break free from repeated cycles of poverty and abandonment, to come to grips with this reality fully, for two main reasons.

First, it may force us to recognize the consequences of our individual actions. Our driving habits are responsible for the majority of fine particulates and nitrogen oxide emissions in this region. We are part of the problem. Maybe the girl growing up on East 79th or West 98th is struggling in school, at least partly, because of the toxic environment into which she born. If we finally start to talk about this, perhaps we can make changes, even if just on the margins. Was driving half a mile to the store really worth aggravating her asthma? Was idling so you could run the AC while waiting to pick up your child worth the extra pollution you exposed him to?

Secondly, acknowledging these issues will force us to rethink our regional development choices. If we want to help improve the lives of low-income Clevelanders, should we really be, say, building a $331 million urban highway that will just bring more traffic, noise, pollution, and dislocation to communities that already have a surplus of them? Is that wisest use of our limited resources? Are we honestly going to help lift people out of poverty by exacerbating some of its causes?

We can’t drive our way out of a driving problem, and we can’t sprawl our way out of a sprawl problem. I don’t know if air pollution is topic that can bring all of this to the fore. Obviously I’m biased. But it’s also a ubiquitous problem in this region, and it plays a factor in a host of our pressing problems. It’s time to make it a permanent part of the conversation.

Study estimates that Volkswagen’s ‘defeat devices’ caused 59 premature deaths in US

vw emissions test
vw emissions test

A Volkswagen Passat undergoes emissions testing (courtesy of John Stillwell/AP).

Since the EPA announced on September 18 that Volkswagen had installed “defeat devices” in its so-called clean diesel vehicles for model years 2008-2015, analysts have been attempting to quantify the public health costs of this single action. A range of outlets from The New York Times to the Associated Press to Mother Jones offered up their estimates. (My personal favorite came from Brad Plumer at Vox, though that’s probably because I pointed him to the EPA technical support document containing the mortality factors that he used for his calculations…) Each entity used a different methodology and came up with different numbers, demonstrating just how hard it is to tabulate the real world impacts of pollution.

Well, last week, a group of researchers from MIT and Harvard published the first peer-reviewed assessment of the public health effects of the diesel scandal in Environmental Research Letters. This study finally gives us a reasonable baseline against which we can measure the true impact of VW’s deception, and the results aren’t pretty. According to Steven Barrett and colleagues, the affected Volkswagen vehicles will  account for an estimated 40.5 billion vehicle kilometers traveled from the start of 2008 to the end of 2015. Using the emissions estimates from the Institute for Clean Transportation, the organization that caught the defeat device, these “clean” diesel cars released 36.7 million kilograms of excess nitrogen oxides (NOx). These emissions directly contributed to the development of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ground-level ozone, both of which are clearly connected to premature mortality and a host of non-lethal health effects.

All told, from 2008 to the present, Barrett and colleagues estimate that VW’s defeat devices are responsible for roughly 59 premature deaths in the US. Additionally, the associated emissions led to 31 cases of chronic bronchitis, 34 hospital admissions for respiratory illness, and approximately 120,000 restricted activity days. Assuming that the statistical value of a human life is $8.5 million, the premature mortality attributable to VW’s actions totals around $450 million; this number does not include the social costs of morbidity.

Moreover, the authors acknowledged that the defeat devices remain on roads throughout the US. If they are not repaired in a timely fashion, the resulting excess emissions will likely cause an additional 140 premature deaths and public health costs of at least $910 million more. As The New York Times has noted, it may be extremely difficult for VW to get drivers to consent to the necessary repairs, as it may lower fuel economy and hurt performance. Fortunately, if VW was able to get each of the 482,000 affected vehicles in the country repaired adequately by the end of 2016, we could avoid 130 of the 140 anticipated deaths.

The aggregate costs of VW’s deception are truly astonishing. The authors estimates suggest that the excess NOx  emissions associated with the defeat devices made up 1% of total light duty vehicle emissions in 2015 alone. And, while it is true that the cars themselves are more deadly than what comes out of their tailpipes – the authors find the affected vehicles likely led to approximately 280 traffic fatalities – Barrett and colleagues explain that “the air pollution death rate from the excess NOx emissions is therefore ~20% of the accident fatality rate for an average US passenger car.”

Beyond putting a number on the social and public health costs of the VW emissions scandal, this study also represents the first time that anyone has attempted to illustrate the spatial distribution of the costs. As the map below shows, the excess NOx emissions were concentrated primarily in a handful of urban centers, including New York City, Washington, DC, Detroit, Atlanta, Denver, Houston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. (Unfortunately the study does not provide a way for readers to estimate the distribution of premature mortality by location, as the map’s data are not granular enough for such an analysis).

excess NOx emissions VW defeat device

Distribution of estimated actual excess VW light duty diesel vehicle NOx emissions from 2008 to 2015 (courtesy of Barrett et al.).

Overall, this study is important for two main reasons:

  • First, it largely validated the estimates presented in the mainstream media to this point. As the authors note, media outlets had concluded that the emissions scandal led to anywhere from 16 to 106 premature deaths in the US. This range lines up quite well with the study’s confidence interval of 9.7 to 150 deaths. That’s surprisingly good, given the vast array of uncertainties and variables involved.
  • Second, the fact that there is now a peer-reviewed study linking VW’s defeat devices to premature deaths will likely be important for pending litigation against the company. Expect to see a number of lawsuits cite this study in their case against VW going forward.

The 1948 Donora Smog and the birth of air quality regulations

lunch time smog

Sixty-seven years ago today, residents of Donora, a town of around 14,000 lying along Monongahela River some 24 miles downstream of Pittsburgh, woke up to find a dense, yellow smog had blanketed the town. Donorans were accustomed to such smogs, as the town lay in a river valley ringed by hills that could reach up to 400 feet high. During the “smog season,” pollution from the industrial base of the city – including a steel mill and a zinc works – would collect in this natural depression and develop into smog until changes in meteorological conditions (shifting winds, rainfall) would dissolve the cloud.

But that didn’t happen on October 27. Or October 28, 29, or 30. Instead, a strong atmospheric inversion, which occurs when a blanket of lighter, warmer air flows in over heavier, colder air, sealed the smog in place. As this happened, emissions from the town’s factories, which included sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, and flourine gas, continued to accumulate near the surface, instead of dissipating into the atmosphere. As the days passed, this blanket of toxic smog engulfing the town continued to get thicker and more noxious.

Given the prevailing views of the day, which suggested that air pollution was just a necessary byproduct of industrial progress, Donorans continued to go on with their lives. The high school football team played its home game that Friday; the Donora and Monongahela teams simply adjusted their tactics, with neither team throwing the ball. And the town even carried on with its Halloween festivities as planned. Workers at the steel and zinc mills continued to show up to work, despite the fact that they were producing the toxic emissions enveloping the town. The owners of the zinc works and steel mill rejected initial requests to shut down the factory as the days went by, and only agreed to cut back production on Halloween. This step occurred just as a storm blew into the area, helping to break the inversion and clear the air of the pollution.

All told, at least 20 people died during the smog, and, in the coming months, 50 more people died in the town than would have been expected under normal circumstances. But almost no one escaped the legacy of the smog, even those who did not succumb to its immediate impacts. The official epidemiological study conducted in the aftermath of the event concluded that “15.5 per cent of the total populace in the area were mildly affected; 16.8 per cent, moderately affected; and 10.4 per cent, severely affected.” The town’s overall mortality rate remained elevated for a decade or more. Relatively little changed for Donora or the country in the short-term. The town’s steel and zinc plants largely avoided being held liable, as investigators placed the blame on the extreme meteorological conditions that occurred. Whereas residents sued the steel plant for more than $4.5 million, U.S. Steel eventually settled for just $256,000, less than 6% of the damages sought.

To this day, the Donora smog remains less well-known than the Great London Smog of 1952, which, given that it affected a major metropolis, killed far more people (perhaps 12,000) and garnered considerably more attention. But Donora did lay the groundwork for air quality regulations in the United States. According to the Pittsburgh Gazette, Allegheny County regulated pollution for the first time the following year, and the passage of the 1955 U.S. Air Pollution Control Act, “the first federal legislation to recognize pollution as a problem,” can be linked to Donora (UPDATE: Per Ben Ross, author of The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered EnvironmentO, the 1955 Air Pollution Control Act was not the first federal bill to address air pollution. That can be traced back to the 1910 Organic Act, which created the Bureau of Mines. In fact, he noted, the 1955 act was a step backwards from the 1910 law in certain regards). The town’s museum commemorating the smog bears a sign proclaiming that “Clean Air Started Here,” while the town’s historical marker notes that “major federal clean air laws became a legacy of this environmental disaster.” Just as we think of the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 as the impetus for the 1972 Clean Water Act (a story which is largely a fable), we should turn to Donora as we commemorate the 45th anniversary of the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments that helped to end the legacy of these toxic smogs.

How VW forced drivers to ‘roll coal’ & what it tells us about the flaws in our emissions testing systems

rollin coal
rollin coal

Rollin’ coal (courtesy of Vocative).

Last summer, a few media outlets reported on a strange phenomenon that was on the rise in certain corners of the country. For whatever reason, a group of Good Ole’ Boys had decided that the best way to show how much they hated environmental regulations and loved fossil fuels was to alter their trucks’ exhaust systems to release massive amounts of black soot. This practice – called “rolling coal” – has inexplicably become highly popular in some communities; its official Facebook page has more than 18,000 followers.

For the coal rollers, tampering with the emissions controls on their trucks was a way to make their personal and political ideologies manifest. Never mind the fact that the exhaust they were spitting out is a known carcinogen. No, the coal rollers claim, the people who are on the receiving end of their soot cloud probably deserve to suffer the consequences because they have the audacity to walk, or ride a bike or, God forbid, drive a Prius. That this cloud of pollution could trigger a medical emergency for someone with a respiratory or cardiovascular condition didn’t matter, because pollution is freedom. Or something.

Fast forward to this week, when we found that Volkswagen had systematically been lying since 2009 about their supposedly “clean” diesel vehicles. When the company claimed that it had discovered a way to make its cars run on diesel, all while meeting US air quality standards, boosting fuel efficiency, and improving handling, people were thrilled. Nearly 500,000 Americans bought into the hype and purchased a clean diesel VW from 2009 to 2015. All told, there are around 11 million of these vehicles on roads globally.

Volkswagen and the inadvertent coal rollers

But, as we now know, VW sold these people a bill of goods. The company had installed a so-called “defeat device” in the vehicle software that allowed it to detect when regulators were conducting emissions testing. At this point, the car would trigger its emissions controls systems, allowing it to meet the standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The rest of the time, the car knew to deactivate these controls, causing it to release 10 to 40 times more nitrogen oxides (NOx) than allowed by federal law. NOx are a family of harmful air pollutants formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. They can help form fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and are a key precursor to the formation of ground-level ozone.

Based on estimates from The Guardian, those 11 million affected vehicles may have released up to 948,691 additional tons of NOx than they would have if they complied with EPA standards. In the US, the 482,000 “clean” diesels on the road likely generated 2,700 to 11,600 tons of NOx. In effect, through its deliberate deception, VW forced its customers unknowingly to roll coal.

A number of observers have discussed the implications of this scandal, discussing, for instance, how efforts to make cars smarter and more internet compatible open them up for manipulation of this sort. But I want to focus on a different issue – how this episode provides an important insight into the the challenges inherent to the US’s vehicle emissions testing system.

Vehicle inspection & maintenance programs: A primer

As Americans began pushing their representatives to address the country’s air pollution crisis, environmental regulators developed ideas on how to tackle pollution from mobile sources. On the one hand, EPA developed a set of certification standards for all new vehicles sold in the country. The Agency developed a rigorous test – known as the Federal Testing Procedure (FTP) – to measure emissions from vehicles in operation. The FTP is highly complex, and largely involves running a car through various phases to simulate, among other things, driving on a freeway and driving in urban gridlock. If a vehicle manufacturer wants to sell its cars in the US, it needs to get EPA certification that it meets federal emissions standards.

federal test procedure

A graph showing the various components of EPA’s Federal Test Procedure for emissions testing (courtesy of US EPA).

But what happens once those vehicles are on the road? How can we make sure that they aren’t spewing out higher levels of pollution? And, if they are, how can we identify them and address this? That’s where vehicle inspection and maintenance (I/M) programs come into play. Congress first included language requiring vehicle I/M programs in areas with persistent air quality problems as part of the 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA). Congress has amended these requirements since that point, most significantly as part of the 1990 CAAA. This bill required all areas designed as nonattainment for ozone standards to implement an I/M program. These programs typically required vehicle owners to bring in their vehicle annually or biennially and undergo some sort of tailpipe emissions test. These tests were generally a modified version of the FTP, such as the IM240, which lasts for 240 seconds.

For years, federal and state regulators promoted the benefits of vehicle I/M programs. EPA, in particular, reportedly considers it (see page 4-14) “one of the most important, if not the single most important, ozone control measure available to metropolitan areas.” According to the Agency, states that implemented its model I/M programs should see mobile emissions of hydrocarbons (HC), carbon monoxide (CO), and NOx  fall by 28%, 31%, and 9%, respectively. Given these numbers, I/M programs clearly appear to be a vital emissions control program, at least on the surface.

Challenges with vehicle I/M programs

But it’s when we get below the surface that things get murkier. As the VW case shows, technology exists to allow vehicle owners – or manufacturers – to actively cheat on emissions tests. But drivers don’t always need to have such malevolent intentions. As Dr. Donald Steadman, a prominent critic of I/M programs has noted, vehicle emissions can vary widely from one test to another – by an order of magnitude in some cases. Emissions also demonstrate a tendency to revert to the mean. In other words, a vehicle can exceed emissions standard on one day, but that same vehicle may dip below the standard on the next day, even in the absence of repairs. Drivers who failed the first test can pass the second through sheer dumb luck.

Even when drivers do get repairs to lower emissions, these repairs are often short-lived. If your goal is only to pass the test, you may seek out a low-cost repair to allow you to game the system. These repairs rarely last, ensuring that real world emissions may spike in the period between tests. And then there’s the drivers who simply choose to skip the test altogether. A number of states, including Ohio, require vehicle owners to pass an emissions test to register their vehicles. But some drivers bypass this option by registering the vehicle outside of the I/M program area or by selling it to someone who does. A 2009 investigation by The Akron-Beacon Journal found that 1 of every 5 vehicles that failed Ohio’s E-Check test in 2008 simply “disappeared.” Of these missing vehicles, nearly 20% ended up registered in counties directly adjacent to the E-Check area.

On-board diagnostics were supposed to fix the problem

These major issues with I/M programs led state and federal agencies to do a lot of soul searching in the 1990s. In an effort to address these challenges, EPA issued a rule in 2001 requiring all states with I/M programs to begin testing the vehicle’s on-board computers. These second generation on-board diagnostic systems, or OBDII, are installed on all cars model year 1996 or newer. OBDII systems are designed to sense issues with the vehicle’s emissions control systems and turn on an indicator light – the infamous check engine light – whenever issues with these components would lead to emissions that are 1.5 times higher than federal certification standards. For comparison’s sake, traditional tailpipe tests are set to fail vehicles whose emissions are 2-3 times higher than certification standards.

In theory, OBDII tests are great. Not only do they allow you to identify issues with emissions controls, they actually tell vehicle owners about them before their cars become major polluters. But, if you’re one of the 3 people who’ve made it this far, you may guess that OBDII tests aren’t a silver bullet either. On the one hand, because they are so restrictive, OBDII tests may fail vehicles that are marginal polluters and would have passed a tailpipe test. According to the National Research Council (pg. 99), up to 70% of all vehicles with an illuminated check engine light had emissions that fell below federal standards. This can push drivers, who are often lower-income, to make expensive repairs that do little to improve air quality. Additionally, OBDII tests may not be particularly reliable.  If a driver disconnects his/her battery before going to the testing center, the OBDII system will tell inspectors to run a tailpipe test instead. And at least one study suggests that, as ODBII systems age, they becoming more likely to malfunction. The odds that a vehicle would actually fail a tailpipe test but pass an OBDII test increases by 3.3% for each year it is on the road.

So what other options are available?

Ultimately, these facts demonstrate that the current vehicle I/M program faces a number of challenges that may compromise its effectiveness. So what options are available to address these shortcomings? One potential area for regulators to expand their efforts is the use of remote sensing device (RSD) technologies. Remote sensing, which has been around for vehicle emissions testing in some form or another for more than 20 years, allows regulators to measure a vehicle’s emissions while in operation in real world conditions. Rather than trying to simulate on-road driving, you bring the testing to the road. A number of states already utilize this technology in some capacity. Here in Ohio, the E-Check program employs RapidScreen vans, which measure a vehicle’s emissions as they drive by on the freeway. This approach can exempt a small group of very clean vehicles that complete 2 successful screenings within a 9-month period.

But RSD has the potential to be expanded further. The National Research Council found that RSD tests are able to identify “dirty” vehicles with a success rate of up to 96%. It’s telling that the International Council on Clean Transportation, the organization that exposed the VW defeat device, did so through the use of remote sensing devices while driving from San Diego to Seattle. RSD tests are also highly cost-effective (they cost less than $1 per test, on average) and can test a much larger number of vehicles in a shorter period of time. It’s worth noting that some prominent conservative and libertarian scholars, including Douglas Noonan and Daniel Klein, have been pushing to use RSD as part of emissions testing for years.

Observers have called for other alternative approaches. These include extending the required manufacturer’s warranty for vehicle emissions controls systems. Under the 1990 CAAA, all car manufacturers are required to provide 8-year/80,000 mile warranties for major emissions control systems, including the catalytic converter and OBDII. But that warranty is only 2 years/24,000 miles for other emissions components that can directly affect pollution levels. Extending component warranties to 200,000 miles would place the financial burden for controlling emissions back on the vehicle manufacturers and out of the hands of individual drivers. States could also follow California’s lead and provide repair subsidies to low-income vehicle owners. Dirty vehicles disproportionately end up in the hands of those people least able to afford expensive repairs. Providing them with financial support may incentivize them to get effective repairs to cut emissions. Perhaps the fines that EPA and the DOJ ultimately level on VW could help to finance the creation of this kind of program. Or these funds could go to finance alternative forms of transportation, such as to shore up underfunded public transit systems or improve bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

It’s nice to see that Volkswagen’s deception has sparked a conversation about the impact of mobile emissions on air quality. But it also provides an important insight into the challenges that environmental regulators face day in and day out. Hopefully this terrible episode can help bring about positive change by bringing attention to the issue and garnering support to fix the cracks in the existing system.

Rep. Bill Patmon to fight infant mortality through the power of condescension

bill patmon planned parenthood
bill patmon planned parenthood

Bill Patmon announces his bill to defund Planned Parenthood in Ohio.

Last month, two seemingly unrelated reports came out. The first involved a series of leaked videos from an anti-abortion activist group that purported to show Planned Parenthood employees trying to sell the tissue and organs of aborted fetuses. The second was a report updating Ohio’s abysmal record on infant mortality rates. Now, at first glance, these two stories have nothing to do with one another. That is, unless you’re Representative Bill Patmon of Cleveland.

On July 28, Rep. Patmon stood on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse to announce that he had introduced House Bill 294, a bill that would bar the state from issuing state and certain federal funds from “any entity that performs or promotes elective abortions.” Apparently Rep. Patmon and his primary co-sponsor, Rep. Margaret Conditt (R-Liberty Township), decided that the controversy over the Planned Parenthood videos provided perfect cover for them to try and defund the organization in Ohio.

Now, in order for this bill to make any legal sense, Reps. Patmon and Conditt need for you to ignore a few details. Like the fact that Planned Parenthood devotes just 3% of its resources to performing abortion services. Or the fact that Ohio law already places Planned Parenthood at the end of the line for state funding. Or the fact that, under provisions in the Medicaid law, the state has no authority to bar patients from visiting the health care provider of their choice. But Rep. Patmon has never been one to let facts get in the way of a chance to preach at Ohioans.

But the truly galling part of this bill is the way that Reps. Patmon and Conditt are attempting to cloak it as a way to address Ohio’s infant mortality crisis. In an email to colleagues, the two claim that the funding taken from Planned Parenthood would be shifted to “empower groups who are committed to combating Ohio’s atrocious statistics [on infant mortality].”

As recent reports from the Ohio Department of Public Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show, the state ranks near the bottom – 45th out of 50 – when it comes to infant mortality rates. While Ohio’s infant mortality rate did decline somewhat in 2013 – down to 7.33 deaths per 1,000 live births from 7.6 in 2012 – it remains 21% above the national average of 5.96 deaths. The issue is drastically worse in Cuyahoga County, which had a rate of 8.9 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2013. For Cleveland, that number was a depressing 13.0 deaths in 2013. The 2012 rate for African Americans in Cleveland was even higher at 15.73 deaths per 1,000 live births, more than 2.5 times the national rate.

Of course, HB 294 will do absolutely nothing to address this ongoing issue. On the contrary, it could actually make the problem worse. As I noted, Planned Parenthood devotes just 3% of its resources to abortion. The other 97% goes towards a variety of other medical services, including sex ed, contraception, STD and HIV/AIDS testing and treatment, cancer screenings and referrals, pregnancy tests, and referrals for prenatal care for pregnant women. Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio treated nearly 57,000 patients last year alone. Many of the patients who rely on Planned Parenthood’s services are low-income and have few other options. As Rep. Gretta Johnson (D-Akron) stated, “This legislation is a purely political maneuver that will further restrict access to necessary healthcare for Ohio’s women, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged and already struggling to meet their basic health needs.”

That Rep. Patmon would place his ideology above the interests of his constituents is hardly surprising. This is the same man who co-sponsored the “Ohio Religious Freedom Restoration Act” in 2013-2014, a bill that would have allowed business owners to discriminate against LGBT individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Patmon eventually backed down, but only after drawing intense criticism. So don’t fall for the (D) that comes after his name. Bill Patmon is a Democrat in the same way that Adam Sandler is funny – some people may have believed that back in the 90s, but we should all know better by now.

Rather than actually stand up for the interests of his constituents, Rep. Patmon is more interested in lecturing them. While announcing HB 294, Rep. Patmon had the nerve to attack African Americans in Northeast Ohio – the majority of people in his House district – for being concerned over excessive use of police force within their communities. “You hear a lot of demonstrations across the country now about Black Lives Matter,” he said. “Well, they skipped one place – they should be in front of Planned Parenthood.”

Perhaps Rep. Patmon has to use condescension to cover up the fact that he has done nothing to address the actual challenge of infant mortality within his district. Instead, he has consistently stood up for the interests of the fossil fuel industry to pollute poor and minority communities throughout the state. The third largest contributor to Rep. Patmon’s campaigns for the Statehouse has been FirstEnergy.  That’s the same FirstEnergy that operated the Lake Shore Power Plant on Cleveland’s east side for 104 years before it was forced to shut down this April in response to the Obama administration’s mercury regulations. That plant sits just upwind from much of Rep. Patmon’s district, including neighborhoods like University Circle and Kinsman that have infant mortality rates higher than Bangladesh, Haiti, North Korea, or Pakistan. In 2012, the NAACP ranked Lake Shore as the 6th worst coal plant in the country for environmental justice, given its high levels of pollution and proximity to tens of thousands of low-income persons of color.

Yet, if Rep. Patmon actually cared about infant mortality, as he claims, he would step up and tackle air pollution. A litany of studies have demonstrated a clear link between in utero and neonatal exposure to air pollution and a host of negative health outcomes, including low birth weight, preterm birth, and infant mortality. In a landmark 2003 study, researchers Kenneth Chay and Michael Greenstone explored the impacts of the decline in particulate matter pollution as a result of the 1980-1982 recession and changes in infant mortality rates. Their results were stunning. They found that the decline in air pollution was responsible for 80% of the total reduction in neonatal mortality in the United States during that period. In their conclusion, they state [FYI, TSP means total suspended particulates, another name for coarse particulate matter]:

We find that a 1 µg/m3 reduction in TSPs is associated with 4-7 fewer infant deaths per 100,000 live births at the county level…Most of these effects are driven by fewer deaths occurring within one month of birth, suggesting that fetal exposure during pregnancy is a biological pathway. Consistent with this, we find significant effects of TSPs reductions on deaths within 24 hours of birth and on infant birth weight. The analysis also reveals nonlinear effects of TSPs and large infant mortality effects at TSPs concentrations below the EPA-mandated air quality standard. Overall, the estimates imply that about 2,500 fewer infants died from 1980-82 than would have in the absence of the [10% reduction] in air pollution.

Additionally, multiple studies demonstrate that exposure to air pollution from natural gas extraction is linked to lower birth weight and higher rates of infant mortality. Despite this, Rep. Patmon was 1 of just 3 Democrats to vote for HB 483, which drastically increased the setback requirements for wind turbines in the state. This bill ensured that setbacks for wind turbines in Ohio are now up to 10 times greater than those for oil and gas wells. Patmon also cast the deciding vote to move HB 375, the pathetic House GOP severance tax bill for oil and gas extraction, out of committee; fortunately it died in the full House. His fealty to fossil fuels knows nearly no bound.

So it’s great that Rep. Bill Patmon has a new-found concern for Ohio’s infant mortality crisis. But perhaps he should spend more time addressing the actual causes of the issue and less time delivering morality lectures to this constituents.

Burn on, big river

1952 Cuyahoga River fire
1952 cuyahoga river fire

The 1952 Cuyahoga River fire, a much more serious event, has historically been confused for the 1969 fire after Time Magazine used this image to bring attention to the nation’s environmental issues. In reality, the 1969 fire was a relative nonevent, and no one even had a chance to take a picture of it (courtesy of Teaching Cleveland).

Forty five years ago today, the Cuyahoga River caught fire (for the 13th time). While this was nowhere near the largest or most substantial of those dozen fires, it did prove to be the most significant historically. The attention the fire gained combined with other significant environmental disasters – including the 1969 San Bernandino oil spill – to help catalyze action. The 1969 fire contributed directly to the passing of landmark environmental legislation, including the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. Today, the Cuyahoga River has largely recovered from the dark days before 1969. While it may not be pristine, it’s also not an open dump for every sort of toxic and organic effluent you can imagine. They used to say that you could tell what color paint Sherwin-Williams was producing by looking at the river. Now, the fish are back, the Scranton Flats Towpath is about to open, and members of the Cleveland Rowing Foundation can be seen passing up and down the bends of the crooked river on a daily basis. In some ways, we should all be thankful for that 1969 fire. It came at the right time to produce real, positive change. But, fortunately, these days, the Big River burns on only in our memories.

Shocking images of air pollution from Cleveland’s past

cleveland skyline pollution 7-20-1973

This gallery contains 14 photos.

Yesterday, the American Lung Association released its annual “State of the Air” report. The report contained some depressing information on the quality of air in this country. In the wealthiest country in the history of the human race, 47% of people – 147.6 million individuals – live in areas that fail to meet standards for ozone or particulate matter pollution.

Cleveland ranks among the 25 dirtiest cities for both ozone pollution and year-round particulate matter pollution. The report makes it clear – we have a lot of work to do in order to guarantee Americans their right to a healthy environment. That’s what makes victories like the Supreme Court’s ruling to uphold the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule so incredibly significant.

But the report also shows how far we have come as a country since the bad old days before the Clean Air … Continue reading

The Opportunity Corridor is an environmental justice disaster

opportunity corridor map

Map of the proposed Opportunity Corridor path (courtesy of the Ohio Department of Transportation).

There is no question that environmental justice (EJ) is and has long been one of the key civil rights issues facing this country. While we may not think about the issue, perhaps because the environment is seen as some amorphous, natural entity, environmental quality varies significantly based on location and socioeconomic status.

Decades of research shows that poor communities of color are far more susceptible to the deleterious effects of air, water, and soil pollution (PDF) than other groups. Though the issue continues to loom large, the country has made progress over the last two decades.The EPA has an Environmental Justice division, an offshoot of Executive Order 12898, which President Clinton signed 20 years ago this February. All 50 states and the District of Columbia now have some sort of EJ legislation or policy on the books.

But despite these successes, much remains to be done. A new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota in PLOS One shows clearly that racial disparities in air quality remain a serious issue (PDF) for public and environmental health in the US.

The authors compared Census data to national information on exposure to nitrogen dioxide, NO2, one of six criteria air pollutants as set by the EPA. Based on the analysis, average NO2 concentrations were 14.5 parts per billion (ppb) for nonwhites, compared to just 9.9ppb for whites. Accordingly, nonwhites were exposed to 38% higher levels of NO2. Exposure also broke down along income levels.

no2 disparities by county

County level differences in population-weighted mean NO2 concentrations between low-income nonwhites and high-income whites (courtesy of PLOS One).

The authors note that these disparities, particularly the major gap along racial lines, likely leads to major public health impacts. They estimate that, if nonwhites had the same rate of NO2 exposure as whites, it would lead an annual decrease of roughly 7,000 ischemic heart disease deaths. To put that in perspective, 3.2 million adults would have to give up smoking to get this same outcome.

Air pollution and race in Northeast Ohio

As you might expect, there is a significant racial disparity in NO2 exposure within the Cleveland metro area. Based on the authors’ data, nonwhites in Cleveland are exposed to 2.3ppb more NO2 than whites on an annual basis. This constitutes the 17th largest gross disparity in the country. Much of the work on urban air pollution focuses on pollutants from stationary sources, particularly coal-fired power plants. But, if you actually break down the data in low-income, minority communities, pollution from transportation emerges as a major issue. In a 2009 report from the Pacific Institute (PDF), residents of Richmond, a low-income community in Northern California, identified freight transport as one of the leading environmental threats to their well-being.

Unlike other pollutants like CO2, SO2, or mercury, the EPA says that 57% of NO2 pollution derives from mobile sources (i.e. automobiles). That number is even higher for Ohio (65%) and Cuyahoga County (77%). NO2 has been linked to asthma, decreased lung function, low birth weight, and elevated risks of both cardiovascular and respiratory mortality.

Unfortunately, NO2 pollution represents a legacy of our country’s highly flawed history of transportation policy, which cut low-income and minority neighborhoods in half and facilitated White flight into the outlying suburbs. Due to such misguided investments, the CDC estimates that 11.3 million Americans live within 150 meters of a major freeway; 47% of these individuals are persons of color.

aerial photo of innerbelt bridge construction cleveland

Construction of the Innerbelt Bridge in Cleveland sliced right through existing residential neighborhoods, as shown in this picture from 1961 (courtesy of  the Cleveland State University archives).

How does the Opportunity Corridor fit into this?

It is in this toxic environment that ODOT and its allies are planning to drop the Opportunity Corridor, a 3-mile, $330 million highway in the middle of overwhelmingly low-income communities of color. I’ve already discussed some of the social and environmental challenges facing the neighborhoods in the path of the project. These neighborhoods have asthma rates nearly double the national average (PDF), and infant mortality rates have been as high as 69 deaths per 1,000 live births. That number is above the rates for Bangladesh, Burma, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda. Many of these critical health issues are closely linked to transportation.

Air quality in Northeast Ohio

While air pollution data are not available below the county level, examining Cuyahoga County’s numbers paints a clear picture. Cuyahoga County ranks among the dirtiest 10% of counties in the entire country for cancer and non-cancer health risks stemming from hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). It also ranks in the worst 10% of all counties in Ohio, a state where people of color are 1.5 times more likely to contract cancer from HAPs and 3.3 times more likely to live near facilities that emit criteria air pollutants.

As the maps below demonstrate, the neighborhoods where the Opportunity Corridor would run bear an immense share of this burden. Children living in these areas have face dangerously high levels of blood lead contamination; this is a toxic legacy of decrepit housing, for sure, but also of a decades-long campaign to keep tetraethyllead in gasoline, despite ample evidence of its harm. (Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed this issue in great detail on Cosmos last week.) Lead is known to reduce cognitive function and cause behavioral issues in children, including aggression and hyperactivity.


cuyahoga county blood lead levels

Source: Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium

Transportation also represents an important source of fine particulate matter, particularly from heavy trucks/freight, which rely on diesel fuel. While mobile sources only account for 5.2% of PM 2.5 nationally, that portion increases to 12.3% in Ohio and 27.5% in Cuyahoga County; one can only assume it is even higher than this total within these neighborhoods.

We know that PM 2.5 is a leading cause of respiratory and cardiovascular mortality; it is also a dangerous carcinogen. A 2012 study found that reducing levels of particulate pollution in the US by 1 µg/m3 would prevent 34,000 premature deaths annually. In Cuyahoga County, which saw 12,809 deaths from PM 2.5 in 2009, such reductions would prevent 91 premature deaths, more than anywhere else in the state.

pm 2.5 mortality improvements

Source: CDC Environmental Public Health Tracking

Lastly, we know that NO2 is essential for the development of ground level ozone, another dangerous urban air pollutant. Cuyahoga County has consistently remained in nonattainment of EPA ozone standards; from 2006-2008, the County averaged 0.081ppm of ozone, one of the highest marks in the country. The American Lung Association gives the county and the city of Cleveland a solid F for ozone pollution.

All told, the burden of disease in these areas is substantial. Some areas along the proposed highway lose more than 500 years of potential life per 1,000 residents, easily the highest toll in the region. Given the potential of the Opportunity Corridor to exacerbate air pollution in the area, it’s hard to see how the project could avoid being a serious environmental justice issue that calls for appropriate planning and mitigation. Surely, ODOT is on top of this issue?

years of potential life lost northeast ohio

Source: Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium

Environmental justice in ODOT’s planning

Not quite. Inexplicably (though not really, when you think about it), ODOT’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) gave short shrift to air pollution (PDF). In the DEIS, ODOT states that the project “does not present concern for air quality,” as it is unlikely to significantly increase carbon monoxide or PM 2.5 emissions. The agency does note that mobile source air toxins (MSATs) will likely increase in certain parts of the project area, but it then dismisses this concern within the same breath. And ODOT completely punts on ozone, stating that the issue is NOACA’s responsibility.

The report’s environmental justice is similarly insufficient. While it does acknowledge that “the project was found to have a disproportionately high and adverse effect to low-income and minority populations,” it claims to address the issue by implementing a “voluntary residential relocation program” (read: forcibly relocating 74 families and 44 businesses for a pittance), throwing some money at a rec center, and building a few noise walls.

But again, in typical ODOT Orwellian fashion, it also states that the project will simultaneously benefit these low-income communities of color by, among other things, improving “access to the Interstate system” and increasing “pedestrian and bicycle access, connectivity and safety.” Apparently enhancing freeway access in an area where most households don’t own automobiles is essential for local non-drivers and great for pedestrians.

EPA criticisms of the Opportunity Corridor

The report includes little, if anything, in the way of plans to mitigate potential increases in air pollution due to additional vehicular traffic or to tackle the severe underlying health issues residents face. Unsurprisingly, EPA Region 5 has criticized the DEIS, saying it contains insufficient information on environmental concerns. The letter pointedly reminds ODOT that the Opportunity Corridor runs through areas that are in nonattainment for ozone and PM 2.5, barely meet four other air pollution standards, and have a series of major environmental justice issues. Simply mentioning these issues in passing so the department can check off another box isn’t going to fly with a project of this import.

I know I’ve said before that Northeast Ohio’s transportation policies are stuck in the 1960s. The Opportunity Corridor is an unfortunate reminder of this fact and of that terrible era of “urban renewal.” Residents of the so-called “Forgotten Triangle” – God I hate that moniker – have a fractious history with the state government, one that has, understandably, left them suspicious of ODOT’s motives.

Public meetings about the project have become contentious, and locals have raised a number of valid criticisms of the project. Yet, the wheel of “progress” inevitably rolls forward once again.

If ODOT ever hopes to garner public buy-in for the Opportunity Corridor, it needs to do more than meet the minimum possible standards. Failing to even mention criteria air pollutants like NO2 and SO2 and claiming that a massive highway project will enhance pedestrian safety isn’t good enough any more. The agency and the project’s supporters can and must do more than the bare minimum. Otherwise, the Opportunity Corridor risks becoming yet another one of Northeast Ohio’s environmental justice disasters.