Pass the ACT rule, we need more electric trucks

No community should be sacrificed for the movement of goods

SEVERAL STATES across the nation are on the verge of adopting life-saving policies that will help slash diesel truck pollution and pave the way for climate action and healthier communities. It is good news that Massachusetts is now one of them.

The Advanced Clean Trucks (ACT) rule just announced by the Baker administration, once adopted, will ensure that manufacturers invest in zero emission trucks by requiring them to sell an increasing percentage of electric trucks annually, starting in 2024. In 2020, California made history by passing the ACT rule — the first in the nation and the world—to increase the supply of electric trucks. This is greatly needed. New York, New Jersey, Washington, and Oregon have already adopted the ACT rule. And the momentum is spreading with other states including Maine and Connecticut assessing clean truck rules to protect their communities.

There are over 300,000 medium- and heavy-duty vehicles in Massachusetts. Although they account for just 7 percent of vehicles on the road, they are responsible for a disproportionate share of toxic air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM). Long term exposure to NOx and PM can decrease lung function, change heart rhythm and blood flow, and increase blood pressure leading to a higher risk of premature death. For children or people with asthma, it can mean not being able to go outside on bad air days. For those working outside, there is little relief.

The shift to cleaner vehicles in our own state can’t come soon enough. No community in Massachusetts should be treated as a sacrifice zone for the movement of goods. Because of the history of redlining, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are often located near highways and truck hubs and suffer from higher levels of air pollution and the health impacts of being exposed to vehicle exhaust. A 2019 study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that communities of color in Massachusetts are exposed to 26 to 34 percent more air pollution from vehicles than white residents. (A correction has been made to this sentence to correct the percentage.)

For example, take East Boston, designated an environmental justice community and host to Logan International Airport and two tunnels. There are a multitude of ground transportation systems supporting travelers and the airport, including Logan Express buses, regional buses, taxis, minivans, transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, limousines, service industry providers, and the list goes on. Add to that, Logan receives thousands of diesel-powered freight trucks traveling on city streets and Route 1-A every single day, 24/7. This adds unhealthy levels of air pollution to a community with a long history of health and environmental burdens.

While significant impacts are also realized from air traffic, diesel truck traffic adds to the high incidence of asthma in our community. Our state Legislature mandated an air quality study conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health around Logan’s environs. As a result of the damning results, over the last 10 years the Massachusetts Port Authority (which manages Logan) and the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center had to create an alliance mitigating the high incidence of asthma.

On a larger scale, it begs the question as to why freight forwarding has to be located at Logan. Certainly, it would help East Boston’s air quality if they were routed elsewhere.

This is unacceptable. Where someone lives shouldn’t determine their well-being and getting people sick should never be the cost of doing business. We have the power to help change this through the state’s adoption of the ACT rule.

In addition to saving lives, this regulation is also crucial to meeting our state’s climate goals, which requires us to reduce emissions by 50 percent this decade and reach net zero emissions by 2050. We won’t hit these climate targets without cleaning up the transportation sector, which makes up over 40 percent of climate-disrupting pollution in Massachusetts.

East Boston is at significant risk from climate change with sea levels estimated to rise nine inches by 2030. Local residents have taken to kayaking in the flooded streets. In the neighborhoods of Orient Heights at the Belle Isle Marsh Reservation along Bennington Street and Eagle Square in Eagle Hill, roads frequently flood and often have to close. Ironically, Bennington Street is designated as an evacuation route! Can we afford to have our transportation system impacted when we are already witnessing the crippling effect it can have on the community?

Without stronger standards for the transportation sector, Massachusetts will fail to meet its climate goals and further endanger vulnerable residents. Our state leaders have a lever they must pull right now. Let’s get rolling on the ACT rule; the sooner it is adopted, the quicker we’ll get cleaner trucks on our roads. The public comment period is now open and a virtual public hearing will be held on February 1.

Gail Miller is president of  Airport Impact Relief  Inc. and Veena Dharmaraj is director of transportation for the Sierra Club of Massachusetts.