Coconut Grove and Coral Gables homeowners challenging the City of Miamis decision to approve a new garage for the Coral Gables Trolley in the West Grove raise important public health and environmental justice concerns. For the West Grove, a predominantly black, low-income neighborhood, the challenge follows decades-long racial discrimination, municipal neglect, and Jim Crow segregation.
During the 1960s, the city operated a noxious incinerator Old Smokey in the West Groves residential neighborhoods. Now, years after the incinerator shut down as a public nuisance, the city wants to impose another polluting facility on the West Grove without any concern for public health.
No one disputes that diesel exhaust from buses, trucks, trains, and ships soot is harmful. Thus, the city should decline to host the Gables trolley garage, which is designed to house 12 or more diesel-powered trolleys that will be warmed-up each morning and subject to minor mechanical work throughout the day.
Short-term exposure to diesel exhaust increases susceptibility to allergies, irritates the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, causes coughs, headaches, light-headedness, and nausea, and can increase the frequency and intensity of asthma attacks.
Long-term exposure can cause lung and bladder cancer and worsen pulmonary conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The elderly, children, and people with pulmonary and cardiovascular illness are at greater risk.
In 2012, the World Health Organizations International Agency for Research on Cancer classified diesel exhaust as carcinogenic to humans. In fact, the agency said diesel exhaust carries a far greater risk of lung cancer than does secondhand cigarette smoke. In other words, a maintenance facility in the West Grove essentially forces residents to inhale soot in amounts equivalent to smoking several cigarettes a day.
Cancer takes years, even decades to develop so people exposed to exhaust are at risk for a long time. For West Grove residents living near this proposed facility, the consequences will be unknown without a lifetime of medical follow-up. A safe lifetime exposure to diesel fumes has not been determined and for this reason alone, the city should withdraw support for the trolley garage.
If construction proceeds, exposure must be minimized and the health of residents closely monitored. Until a safe level of diesel exhaust exposure is determined, all trolleys housed and repaired in this facility should be required to use ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, have the cleanest engines, and have their exhausts independently monitored for pollutants.
The Clean School Bus USA programs guidelines should be followed, including reducing unnecessary idling, replacing older trolleys with newer, less-polluting ones, and upgrading existing trolleys with technologies to reduce emissions. When public health and environmental safety are at stake, people should come first.
Dr. Steven E. Lipshultz teaches at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Zachary A. Lipshultz is with the Environmental Justice Project at the UM School of Law. Anthony V. Alfieri teaches at the UM School of Law.