Lots of smoke, noise -- but not much action on diesel engine idling
From Chicago Tribune:
As fans left Wrigley Field after a late-season Cubs loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, they were greeted by clouds of noxious diesel exhaust from charter buses idling outside the ballpark, some for nearly an hour.
On another fall afternoon, three tour buses sat parked and running outside the Trump International Hotel and Tower for more than a half-hour waiting for conventioneers. A block away, shuttle buses idled for up to 15 minutes near the State Street Bridge as workers left 330 N. Wabash Ave., the former IBM Building.
To leave diesel-powered vehicles idling for more than three minutes is illegal in Chicago, yet the Tribune observed dozens of violations in the last three months. The fumes are more than an acrid nuisance; testing by the newspaper found the amount of lung- and heart-damaging soot in the air next to idling buses soared up to 30 times higher than normal street levels.
Though Mayor Richard Daley promotes the anti-idling law as an example of how he's made Chicago one of the nation's greenest cities, city officials have written only 34 tickets since 2006 for excessive idling, according to records obtained by the Tribune under the Freedom of Information Act.
More than four years after state legislators passed an anti-idling law and a year after Chicago enacted its own, tougher version, Chicago police haven't written a single ticket for violating the law, records show.
As a result, people routinely are exposed to bursts of toxic air pollution as they walk past idling tour buses, delivery trucks and other diesel-powered vehicles.
Only two suburbs, Oak Park and Wilmette, report writing tickets for violating the Illinois anti-idling law, according to a state survey. Half of the communities that responded said diesel idling isn't an issue.
"These laws are useless if they aren't enforced," said Chicago Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, who pushed for the idling limits in response to complaints about diesel pollution near hotels, condo buildings, schools and tourist attractions. "The only way we are going to get the attention of these drivers is by handing out tickets and making them appear in court."
Backed by health groups and embraced by politicians and companies seeking to burnish their green credentials, anti-idling policies have become popular in recent years. The Daley administration promoted the idea during the city's unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Olympics, promising it would help clean up Chicago's chronically dirty air and encourage companies to save fuel.
City officials said they've spent the last year educating fleet operators about the law and training city workers to limit idling. They have posted warning signs in about a dozen spots where buses congregate, including outside the Adler Planetarium, River North theme restaurants and City Hall.
"The word is getting out," said Suzanne Malec-McKenna, the city's environment commissioner. "We've given the fleet operators fair warning about the rules and what we're expecting from them."
Enforcement has lagged though. More than half of the tickets written for violating the law came during the last two months, after the Tribune requested copies of all citations for excessive idling issued by city officials.
Most of the tickets were written by one Department of Revenue parking enforcement aide in Lakeview, Lincoln Park and the Loop. Other city agencies authorized to hand out tickets, which slap drivers with a $250 fine, include the Police Department, Department of Environment, and Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
Limiting idling, proponents say, is a practical way to reduce air pollution from diesel engines, which power a huge part of the economy but increasingly are seen as a health threat.
A growing number of studies are raising alarms about tiny soot particles in diesel exhaust that can lodge deeply in the lungs and penetrate the bloodstream. Toxic chemicals in the exhaust also combine with other pollutants in the air to form lung-damaging smog.
Researchers have found that breathing even small amounts of diesel exhaust can inflame the lungs and trigger asthma attacks. Multiple studies have linked exposure with cancer, heart attacks and premature death, leading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to declare that diesel exhaust is one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution.
As the health dangers have become more widely understood, the EPA has adopted tougher regulations requiring cleaner diesel engines and fuels. But the rules allow millions of older, dirtier trucks, buses and pieces of construction equipment to keep operating without filters that can screen out most of the noxious pollution.
"Everything we can do to reduce emissions helps," said Darwin Burkhart, manager of clean air programs for the Illinois EPA.
To take a snapshot of the diesel pollution that people breathe in the Chicago area, the Tribune rented a handheld device that measures black carbon, or soot, a key ingredient in diesel exhaust. The testing device, manufactured by Magee Scientific, of Berkeley, Calif., is similar to ones used by researchers in peer-reviewed studies that pinpointed pollution hot spots near highways, rail yards, shipping ports and quarries.
During walks, drives and train rides, the Tribune found spikes of the pollution that far exceeded normal levels in Chicago and other U.S. cities. The newspaper previously reported that high levels of soot can be found on Metra commuter trains leaving Chicago, prompting Sen. Dick Durbin to call for a federal investigation and transit officials to conduct their own testing.
Idling buses and trucks are another problem, caused in part by the misconception that diesel engines need to keep running to operate properly.
Engine manufacturers, including Caterpillar and Cummins, generally recommend that drivers limit idling to extend the life of the engine and avoid costly repairs. Based on observations during the last three months, though, old habits die hard.
On more than a dozen occasions during the evening rush hour, shuttle buses idled for up to 15 minutes near the State Street Bridge waiting for workers from the former IBM Building.
Passenger buses also frequently idled beyond the three-minute limit outside Union Station on Canal Street, where on Nov. 10 soot levels spiked up to 23 times higher than normal for the city. Later that afternoon, several CTA buses idled beyond the limit — one for 15 minutes — at a turnaround in Jefferson Park.
Last week, city contractors installing holiday displays in planters along Michigan Avenue kept a forklift-carrying semitrailer truck idling for more than 20 minutes.
Both the state and the local anti-idling laws allow drivers to keep their engines running to operate air conditioning when it is warmer than 80 degrees or heating when it is colder than 32 degrees. All of the excessive idling observed during the last three months happened during more moderate weather.
Noelle Gaffney, a CTA spokeswoman, said the transit agency instructs drivers to shut off buses if parked for more than five minutes. Bus engines automatically shut down after 15 or 30 minutes, she said, depending on the how old they are.
"We try to be very conscious of our emissions," Gaffney said, noting that the CTA has used cleaner diesel fuel since 2003 and has purchased several new hybrid buses that emit far less pollution than older models.
But the CTA also lobbied successfully to exempt itself from both the state and city anti-idling laws.
Several delivery operations with large, diesel-powered fleets say they have embraced anti-idling policies, including UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service. Drivers are trained to shut off their engines when stopped for deliveries, a practice that appears to be diligently followed in the Chicago area.
Other companies have had mixed results.
On the afternoon of that Cubs loss to the Cardinals, nearly all of the charter buses lined up around the ballpark were shut down during the game, a noticeable change from previous years. One driver standing on the sidewalk outside the right-field bleachers mentioned the city's anti-idling law and pulled out a pink parking permit where "Shut Off Engine When Parked" appeared in bold letters.
But after fans started streaming out of the ballpark, most of the drivers fired up their buses and idled well past the three-minute limit, including the one who minutes earlier had cited the city law.
The Cardinals' team bus kept rumbling, too, idling next to Wrigley on the sidewalk at Sheffield Avenue for nearly 40 minutes as players sporadically dashed out of the clubhouse past fans pleading for autographs.
Undaunted by the fumes, a boy wearing an Albert Pujols jersey decided his best vantage point was behind the bus, next to the exhaust pipe.
For more information on idling diesel engines, visit our Diesel Pollution page.