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As electric commercial trucks become more viable, they have the potential to cut emissions from warehouse and distribution facilities that are proliferating rapidly around the country — often in environmental justice communities already heavily affected by pollution.
But one such project, at the site of a former Chicago coal plant, shows that electrification will not be enough to alleviate the impacts from these facilities.
Little Village in Chicago is a vibrant community with a predominantly Latinx population. There are also a multitude of warehouses and a lot of traffic from diesel-fueled trucks, contributing to some of the worst air quality in the city.
Before 2012, the Crawford coal power plant was one of the most prolific producers of carbon emissions in Little Village — generating so much white smoke that it was known as the “cloud factory” among young people in the community.
The site is being redeveloped as a warehouse and distribution center for the Target department store chain. Despite a pledge by the merchandiser to hire 2,000 workers at the site at wages starting at $18 per hour, many residents have objected to the development, noting it would basically trade one form of pollution for another.
Electrification alone will not address all of the quality-of-life concerns and demands of the community, according to Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, or LVEJO.
“We can’t get caught up in just a conversation around, ‘Yes, let’s just electrify everything and that’ll be the end of our problems,’ because it won’t be,” Wasserman said. “There’s still a massive concern around how many warehouses are coming into low-income communities of color.”
Wasserman, who was born and raised in Little Village, first became active in environmental justice at age 21, when her infant son was diagnosed with asthma, which she linked with the emissions from the Crawford plant.
Efforts by Wasserman and LVEJO contributed to the closure of the coal-fired Crawford power plant in Little Village in 2012. The Fisk coal plant, formerly located in Chicago’s predominantly Latinx Pilsen community, was also closed in 2012.
Wasserman also expressed resentment over what she views as the short-sighted perception that Little Village residents should be relegated to warehouse jobs — jobs that she predicts are likely to disappear in the not-too-distant future.
An aldermanic parting gift
Hilco Redevelopment Partners purchased the former Crawford site and gained City Council approval for its development plans of the former coal plant in 2018, despite strenuous objections from Little Village residents, the Sierra Club and LVEJO. Hilco subsequently obtained $19.7 million in tax breaks from the city in 2019.
The Hilco project was heavily promoted by former Chicago City Council member Ricardo Muñoz, who represented the city’s 22nd Ward, where the facility is located. Muñoz declined to run for reelection to the City Council after being charged on New Year’s Eve 2018 with misdemeanor domestic violence.
During a March 2019 committee meeting, Muñoz dismissed concerns about increased asthma rates resulting from diesel truck traffic at the facility with a shrug, according to a Block Club Chicago article.
“The Stevenson [Expressway] is not but 1,500 feet away from here,” Muñoz said during the meeting. “Diesel is everywhere. It’s not making it worse, it’s just moving it to 35th and Pulaski.”
Ensuring that the Hilco project would receive its tax break was one of Muñoz’s last acts as a member of the City Council. In doing so, he leveraged the Chicago convention of aldermanic privilege, which allows representatives final say concerning projects in their respective wards.
The project also enjoys support from the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, referencing “long-lasting economic growth and a range of long-term benefits to the Little Village Community and surrounding areas,” in an email response by Executive Director Ivette Trevino.
Trevino noted that developers have pledged to include new sidewalks, trails, and transit stations as part of the project, known as Exchange 55. The project website also states that the completed warehouse will be the “largest LEED-certified green warehouse building” in the city.
“This improved infrastructure will make the newly created jobs easily accessible by walking, biking, or taking public transportation to work,” Trevino said. “The environmental elements of the project such as the installation of solar panels, LED lighting and charging stations for electric vehicles are an added benefit along with the beautification of the area with the planting of 700 new trees.”
Congestion, infrastructure and idle time
Despite those promised improvements, traffic congestion and idling produce extensive carbon emissions in areas with high concentrations of heavy industry and diesel-powered vehicles. Transitioning to electric-powered vehicles could significantly reduce the latter problem along with engine noise levels, according to Susan Mudd, an attorney and senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago.
“Diesel trucks are certainly a big and legitimate concern of residents of neighborhoods including Little Village and others, with big rigs rumbling through at all hours and polluting the air with NOx, PM2.5 and numerous other toxins,” Mudd said by email. “In Little Village a particular concern is also the proximity of the proposed [Target] development with a school. Electric trucks would help on noise levels and fumes, reducing the risk to drivers, neighbors and students.
“The problems with diesel trucks are both when they are driving through the area AND when they are idling waiting to load and unload,” Mudd continued. “This is aggravated by the fact that Chicago does not enforce its idling ordinance,” which limits diesel idling to 3 minutes per hour.
During a 2018 meeting with Little Village residents and environmental advocates prior to City Council approval of the project, Hilco CEO Roberto Perez pledged that site development would include charging stations for commercial electric trucks. However, prospective tenants of the site would be “encouraged” rather than required to adopt an electric trucking fleet, Jeremy Grey, Hilco director of development, said during the meeting.
Such an arrangement would provide a potential loophole for tenants to avoid installing EV charging stations or related infrastructure for commercial vehicles. In the past, when LVEJO has raised concerns about increased traffic and diesel emissions, companies have sometimes stated that they leased rather than owned trucks that used their facilities, making it impossible to commit to switching any of the trucks to commercial electric vehicles, according to Wasserman.
“So, this is where the devil is in the details,” she said.
Even a complete transition to electric vehicles does nothing to reduce traffic congestion without a reduction in warehouse developments in Little Village, Wasserman said.
“What happens is trucks get backed up, but don’t want to sit in traffic,” she said. “So, from one o’clock in the afternoon on you’ll just see a bunch of diesel trucks driving down our residential streets. And if those arteries get blocked up, then they start cutting through side streets, which is a huge issue.”
Not a dumping ground
Wasserman expressed particular disdain for the idea that Little Village is viewed by the mayor and others as a “last mile” resource for intermodal facilities.
“What we’re pushing back on is that we can do more than just work in warehouses. We can do more than just drive trucks,” Wasserman said. “And so, for us, when our mayor is like, ‘Oh yeah, you guys are right for warehouses,’ what that tells us is that we’re right for being exploited and that that’s all our community is good for.”
Reliance on distribution centers for economic development is unsustainable, according to Wasserman, who scoffed about the prospect of 2,000 hires by Target at the distribution center.
“Getting rid of workers and bringing automated systems into the warehouses is very real and is beginning to happen,” she said. “And so, yeah, they could hire 2,000 people for the next couple of years, but when they decide to automate, because it’s cheaper for them — then what’s going to happen to a lot of those jobs? When that bubble pops, what is going to happen to all of these extra warehouses in our neighborhood? What is going to happen to all this space?
“Why are you investing in an unsustainable future for our communities when we’re telling you that there is a more sustainable way for us to develop in our neighborhoods and lift up our people in our local economy?”
A nationwide problem
A high concentration of heavy industry sites and their associated poor air quality and adverse health effects is not limited to Little Village. A May 2021 article in the Los Angeles Times described the proliferation of warehouses, diesel trucks and resulting high levels of airborne contamination in predominantly Latinx communities in southern California. Just as in Little Village, residents in these neighborhoods have expressed frustration about the concentration of heavily polluting industries in communities of color.
“You feel torn,” San Bernardino resident Jorge Heredia told the Times. “You understand the need for people to make a living. But you feel like you’re bombarded.”
In another story for NBC News in San Francisco, Emily Cunningham, a founding member of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, spoke even more bluntly.
“Families in the Inland Empire are being treated like sacrifices,” Cunningham told NBC News. “It’s as if their lives don’t matter as much, and that’s wrong and needs to be stood up against. It’s unacceptable.”
The coronavirus pandemic has introduced an additional peril associated with high levels of carbon emissions. Elevated death rates from COVID-19 have been correlated with areas across the country that are plagued with high levels of air pollution, according to a 2020 Harvard University study.
Electrification done right
Little Village has a tremendous, largely untapped potential for expansion into sustainable food production. A venture along similar lines as the Gotham Greens greenhouse facilities in Pullman would have been an ideal use for the Crawford plant, according to Wasserman.
“We spent a long time researching our neighborhood’s capacity. And what we found was that we have a really strong food economy,” Wasserman said. “People in our neighborhood have experience in making food and selling food. But we don’t have any place in our neighborhood. We don’t have any commercial kitchens. We don’t have any space to do large-scale growing. … We grew five tons of food last year in our little community garden. If we could have access to large scale, we know that we could grow a lot more food.
“Our neighborhood is really interested in a closed food economy because of how much food plays a role in our community, both economically, and at large. … And so, we’ve pushed the city to say look, instead of giving us warehouses for packaging, [why not] give us spaces to do large scale indoor growing? … But the city isn’t interested in self-determination; it’s not interested in allowing a community to determine for itself what it wants to do.”
Wasserman would also like to see additional infrastructure investment to support the transition to electric vehicle servicing for the many small commercial vehicle repair shops in the community.
“What we want to see is how those small mom-and-pop shops can actually look towards electrification and get in on that market before others come into our neighborhoods to take advantage of that,” she said. “It’s really important for us to be thinking about what does a transition to electrification look like that supports them best? There is a broader conversation here that needs to be had. It’s not just like electrification is gonna solve all the issues.”