Diesel vehicles may be a familiar part of any city, but the pollutants left in their wake can take a serious toll, particularly on the residents of Rhode Island’s capital.
According to a 2005 analysis conducted by the Clean Air Task Force (CATF), an environment nonprofit, Providence County is one of the unhealthiest in the US when it comes to health problems related to diesel emissions. Rhode Islanders suffer each year from 50 premature deaths, 80 heart attacks, 900 asthma attacks, and 1400 child respiratory problems, according to the task force.
Denise Parrillo of Clean Water Action, a member of the Diesel Pollution Initiative (DPI), an alliance of health, labor, and environmental groups, notes that any city — with an abundance of traffic — poses a higher risk of pollution to its residents. But Providence County also hosts a substantial portion of the population’s highest asthma rates, and Rhode Island is generally behind other Northeast states, she says, in addressing the problem.
In one reflection of the situation, the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report Card recently gave Rhode Island a series of Ds and Fs.
Parrillo and other activists are pressing their case, trying to build support for legislation, sponsored by state Senator Paul Moura and state Representative Ray Sullivan, which would require clean diesel vehicles for future state contracts and for future municipal contracts for waste haulers.
Referring to the slogan — “Diesel pollution has a solution” — Parrillo says, “That’s why I feel more hopeful about this campaign as opposed to other campaigns.”
Diesel particulate filters, which replace the mufflers on waste vehicles, are to be used with Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel fuel which, together, reduce the emission of particulate matter by 90 percent.
Part of the problem in moving forward, however, is how the cost to retrofit existing diesel vehicles is faced not by the state, but by private entities that might be unwilling to shoulder the cost.
The DPI has tried to address this by fashioning bills to obtain cost-savings through bulk purchasing and by piggybacking on other states’ activity, while also utilizing federal money procured by the state Department of Environmental Management.
“There are more retro-fit companies out there now — there’s more of a market,” Parrillo says. “There are states tackling this problem with legislation. It’s actually becoming its own business.”
Other solutions proffered by retrofit technology companies include new ventilation systems for school and transit buses, which prevent engine exhaust fumes from entering the cabin, and truck stop electrification systems, to allow truckers to power their rigs without having to run their engines all night.
Should these measures be broadly implemented, the health risks associated with diesel emissions should all but disappear locally, rendering Providence a far safer place to breathe.