Chicago Tribune (Sunday)

Breath­ing not any eas­ier

Cities glob­ally saw cleaner air af­ter be­ing shut down. Not Chicago.

- By Michael Hawthorne U.S. News · Ecology · Infectious Diseases · Health Conditions · Los Angeles · New Delhi · Delhi · New York City · York City F.C. · New York · Detroit · Michigan · Illinois · Chicago Metropolitan Area, Illinois · Carlucci Weyant · Lake · Indiana · Ohio · Minnesota · Wisconsin · United States of America · Norfolk · Englewood, Colorado · University of Chicago · J.B. Pritzker · University of Miami · Philadelphia Union · Harvard University · Harvard, IL · Donald Trump · U.S. Chamber of Commerce · St. Louis, Michigan · Lake Michigan · U.S. Environmental Protection Agency · Likely · Norfolk Southern Corporation · Environmental Law and Policy Center · Ashburn · CSX Corporation · Bedford Park, IL · Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers · The American Petroleum Institute

Weeks of clear skies over Los An­ge­les, New Delhi, Wuhan and other smoggy, soot-choked cities are signs of how the coron­avirus lock­down im­proved air qual­ity around the planet.

An­i­mated satel­lite maps and daily re­ports from mon­i­tor­ing net­works back what peo­ple see with their own eyes. In city af­ter city, lev­els of lung-dam­ag­ing, life-short­en­ing pol­lu­tion dropped abruptly as COVID-19 re­stricted daily com­mut­ing and grounded na­tional economies to a halt.

But for rea­sons that have yet to be fully ex­plained, peo­ple in Chicago and its sub­urbs aren’t breath­ing dra­mat­i­cally cleaner air dur­ing the pan­demic.

Av­er­age daily soot con­cen­tra­tions in the re­gion de­clined by only 1% last month com­pared with April 2019, ac­cord­ing to a Chicago Tri­bune anal­y­sis of fed­eral and state mon­i­tor­ing data.

Last month on av­er­age was dirt­ier than both April 2018 and 2017, the anal­y­sis found.

By con­trast, soot lev­els in New York City dropped 28% last month com­pared with the same pe­riod a year ago. Den­ver, Detroit, Los An­ge­les and St. Louis each saw a 16% de­cline in the tiny par­ti­cles of pol­lu­tion dur­ing the first full month of shel­ter-in-place or­ders.

“De­mand for toi­let paper and food and other goods hasn’t dropped off dur­ing the shut­down, and in some cases prob­a­bly has in­creased. We need to dig deeper into the data, but the steady move­ment of goods could be a rea­son why Chicago hasn’t seen the air qual­ity im­prove­ments other cities have.”

— Zac Adel­man, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Lake Michi­gan Air Direc­tors Con­sor­tium

The Illi­nois En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency noted in a state­ment that soot lev­els fluc­tu­ate hour to hour, day to day and year to year based in part on weather con­di­tions. Re­searchers even­tu­ally will be able to iden­tify last month’s sources of soot pol­lu­tion in Chicago by an­a­lyz­ing the chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion of par­ti­cles col­lected inside fil­ter-based mon­i­tor­ing equip­ment.

Likely cul­prits in­clude build­ings, fac­to­ries and diesel en­gines that burn coal, oil or nat­u­ral gas. Diesel emis­sions in par­tic­u­lar re­main a chronic prob­lem in Chicago, a racially seg­re­gated freight hub where rail yards, ware­houses and in­ter­modal fa­cil­i­ties are con­cen­trated in low-in­come, pre­dom­i­nantly African Amer­i­can and Latino neigh­bor­hoods.

Fewer gaso­line-fu­eled cars might be on ex­press­ways and streets these days, but diesel truck and train traf­fic ap­pears to have re­mained fairly con­stant. Mo­du­lar con­tain­ers are still ex­changed daily be­tween rail cars and semi­trail­ers at more than a dozen in­ter­modal fa­cil­i­ties in the city and sub­urbs.

“We al­ready have roughly double the amount of heavy-duty traf­fic than other ma­jor cities in the coun­try,” said Zac Adel­man, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Lake Michi­gan Air Direc­tors Con­sor­tium, a group of state of­fi­cials from Illi­nois, In­di­ana, Michi­gan, Ohio, Min­nesota and Wis­con­sin.

“De­mand for toi­let paper and food and other goods hasn’t dropped off dur­ing the shut­down, and in some cases prob­a­bly has in­creased,” Adel­man said. “We need to dig deeper into the data, but the steady move­ment of goods could be a rea­son why Chicago hasn’t seen the air qual­ity im­prove­ments other cities have.”

Pre­vi­ous stud­ies sup­port what for now can only be spec­u­lated.

Dur­ing the past decade, sci­en­tists at the U.S. EPA have dis­cov­ered daily spikes of soot pol­lu­tion near in­ter­modal fa­cil­i­ties in Chicago and other cities that far ex­ceed av­er­age ur­ban con­cen­tra­tions.

When Nor­folk South­ern planned a mas­sive ex­pan­sion of its in­ter­modal yard in the

En­gle­wood neigh­bor­hood six years ago, an anal­y­sis by the non­profit En­vi­ron­men­tal Law and Pol­icy Cen­ter sug­gested the project would sub­stan­tially in­crease pol­lu­tion in an area plagued by high rates of asthma. Us­ing an EPA com­puter model, the group es­ti­mated that wor­ri­some lev­els of soot could spread sev­eral blocks be­yond the site un­less the rail­road took more ag­gres­sive steps to clean up its diesel equip­ment.

Af­ter sev­eral al­der­men raised ques­tions, Nor­folk South­ern up­graded switcher lo­co­mo­tives in the Chicago area and com­mit­ted to re­plac­ing most of its diesel-pow­ered equip­ment with cleaner mod­els.

New ev­i­dence po­ten­tially comes from a net­work of sen­sors de­ployed around the city by data sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Chicago. A sen­sor that mea­sures soot is lo­cated in the Ash­burn neigh­bor­hood on the South­west Side, less than a mile from one of the re­gion’s busiest in­ter­modal fa­cil­i­ties — a sprawl­ing CSX com­plex in sub­ur­ban Bed­ford Park.

Since Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home or­der took ef­fect March 21, av­er­age daily soot con­cen­tra­tions recorded by the sen­sor are 29% higher than lev­els of pol­lu­tion de­tected dur­ing the pre­vi­ous two months, the data sci­en­tists found.

The U. of C. team plans to in­stall more of the pol­lu­tion sen­sors around the city, giv­ing residents more in­for­ma­tion about what they are breath­ing close to home rather than the re­gion­wide pol­lu­tion tracked by the EPA.

Soot pol­lu­tion al­ready is an en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice prob­lem in Chicago. Com­mu­nity groups have been push­ing the city for years to con­sider the health dan­gers when eval­u­at­ing plans for new freight op­er­a­tions.

A 2014 Tri­bune anal­y­sis found that nearly 340,000 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 38,000 chil­dren younger than 7, live within a half-mile of one of the re­gion’s in­ter­modal ter­mi­nals. More than 80% are Latino or African Amer­i­can.

Diesel lo­co­mo­tives and trucks are reg­u­lated dif­fer­ently than steel mills, fac­to­ries and power plants. New or re­fur­bished en­gines must be cleaner, but older, dirt­ier diesel equip­ment can legally keep op­er­at­ing.

As a re­sult, cer­tain neigh­bor­hoods re­main pol­lu­tion hot spots even when air qual­ity in the broader met­ro­pol­i­tan area is con­sid­ered rel­a­tively clean.

In Lit­tle Vil­lage, residents are fight­ing a pro­posed ware­house that would bring scores of ad­di­tional diesel trucks into the work­ing class, pre­dom­i­nantly Latino neigh­bor­hood.

Kim Wasser­man, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Lit­tle Vil­lage En­vi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Or­ga­ni­za­tion, noted the trucks would ma­neu­ver and idle on the site of a for­mer coal-fired power plant that for decades was one of the city’s largest in­dus­trial emit­ters of soot.

“There are some­thing like 45 ware­houses now within 2 miles of us,” Wasser­man said this week. “The city keeps ap­prov­ing new ones with­out any re­gard for what they are do­ing to air qual­ity in our neigh­bor­hood and oth­ers.”

Un­like the vivid dust cloud cre­ated by the re­cent im­plo­sion of a smoke­stack at the for­mer coal plant, a type of soot known as PM2.5 is so small thou­sands of par­ti­cles could fit on the pe­riod at the end of this sen­tence.

A grow­ing body of re­search shows the fine par­ti­cles can lodge deeply in the lungs and pen­e­trate the blood­stream. Breath­ing the pol­lu­tion can trig­ger asthma at­tacks and cause heart prob­lems.

Last year pub­lic health ex­perts at the U.S. EPA reaf­firmed that PM2.5 pol­lu­tion is re­spon­si­ble for thou­sands of pre­ma­ture deaths an­nu­ally. Re­quir­ing more rig­or­ous con­trol of in­dus­trial emis­sions could save thou­sands of lives, the EPA sci­en­tists con­cluded.

There also is an emerg­ing sci­en­tific link be­tween soot and COVID-19 death rates.

New re­search from a team of Har­vard data sci­en­tists found that a per­son liv­ing for decades in a county with high lev­els of soot is 8% more likely to die from the coron­avirus than some­one in an area with one mi­cro­gram less of the pol­lu­tion per cu­bic me­ter of air.

“When you think about how fine par­tic­u­late mat­ter kills you and how COVID-19 kills you, you re­al­ize that more soot in the air is like throw­ing gaso­line on a fire,” said the study’s prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor, Francesca Do­minici, a Har­vard bio­statis­tics pro­fes­sor who spent the past two decades per­fect­ing a data­base of long-term soot con­cen­tra­tions across the na­tion.

As part of a manda­tory five-year re­view, EPA sci­en­tists de­ter­mined that tight­en­ing fed­eral soot stan­dards — from 12 to 9 mi­cro­grams of PM2.5 pol­lu­tion per cu­bic me­ter of air — would lower an­nual deaths by 27%, or 12,150 peo­ple a year.

But de­spite the find­ings from the agency’s ca­reer staff, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion last month scut­tled a pro­posed tight­en­ing of fed­eral stan­dards for in­dus­trial emis­sions.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion ended up sid­ing with in­dus­try groups that for decades have at­tacked sci­en­tific con­clu­sions about soot, in­clud­ing the Al­liance of Au­to­mo­bile Man­u­fac­tur­ers, the Amer­i­can Pe­tro­leum In­sti­tute, the Na­tional Min­ing As­so­ci­a­tion and the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce.

“We be­lieve the cur­rent stan­dard is pro­tec­tive of pub­lic health,” EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor An­drew Wheeler told re­porters dur­ing an April 14 con­fer­ence call.“Through the five-year re­view process we’ve iden­ti­fied a lot of un­cer­tain­ties. Through those un­cer­tain­ties we’ve iden­ti­fied that the cur­rent stan­dard does not need to be changed.”

 ?? AN­TO­NIO PEREZ/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE ?? Diesel trucks en­ter a busy rail in­ter­modal yard May 6 in Cicero.
AN­TO­NIO PEREZ/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE Diesel trucks en­ter a busy rail in­ter­modal yard May 6 in Cicero.
 ?? AN­TO­NIO PEREZ/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE ?? A freight train haul­ing con­tain­ers heads to­ward Chicago, at the busy rail in­ter­modal BNSF yard in Cicero on May 6. Diesel emis­sions in par­tic­u­lar re­main a chronic prob­lem in Chicago.
AN­TO­NIO PEREZ/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE A freight train haul­ing con­tain­ers heads to­ward Chicago, at the busy rail in­ter­modal BNSF yard in Cicero on May 6. Diesel emis­sions in par­tic­u­lar re­main a chronic prob­lem in Chicago.

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