Historic Black Community Put at Risk by Truck Bridge

August 31, 2021 | 9:01 am
A. Walker/Wikimedia
Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura
Senior Vehicles Engineer

This blog is a collaboration between UCS and Monique Harden, Esq. of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and Joe Womack of Africatown~C.H.E.S.S.

Residents of the historic community of Africatown in Mobile, Alabama, are fighting against plans by the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) to build a truck-only toll bridge across Mobile Bay that would likely cause truck traffic to divert through their community. Truckers would avoid the toll bridge by driving on the community’s main road, Africatown Boulevard, the only road that connects to the non-tolled Africatown-Cochrane Bridge and the Causeway over the Bay. ALDOT’s plan would increase the traffic of large commercial trucks in Africatown and would expose residents to increased diesel air pollution as well as increased safety risks. It would also wreak havoc with Africatown residents’ efforts to develop tourism and preserve their history.

Some Alabama history

After the U.S. passed a law that made it illegal to transport Africans to America for enslavement, in 1860 a businessman named Timothy Meaher boldly wagered another wealthy man that he could get away with violating this law by kidnapping Africans and bringing them as captives to Alabama.  He hired a schooner, The Clotilda, to execute his nefarious plan, and under hellish conditions, transported more than one hundred Africans across the Atlantic Ocean from Benin, West Africa, to Alabama. Upon arrival, the slavers burnt the schooner, the Africans were divided up between the Meahers and the captain of the schooner, and the others were sold. Meaher was caught and tried but was absolved of a crime which was punishable by hanging. The charred remains of The Clotilda were recently discovered in Mobile Bay by archeologists, bringing national attention to The Clotilda, the last known slave ship.

After the end of the Civil War, unable to return to Africa, the abducted Africans pooled money and with much determination were able to buy some land from their former owners, the Meaher family. The community they founded grew into the present-day Africatown, a small but vibrant community north of Mobile, AL. Today, the community is fighting tooth and nail to block the construction of the truck-only tolled bridge, to preserve its history and to sustain its future.

The legacies of slavery in Africatown

Africatown residents, many of whom are descendants of the original captive Africans, are still suffering from the legacies of slavery. The landing site of The Clotilda slave ship is now covered by oil storage tanks that emit toxic air pollution into the community. Three of the five largest industrial polluters in Mobile County are located on the waterfront of Africatown. A local research institute found 300 to 3,000 times the levels of chemicals in the soil declared to be safe by the World Health Organization, and residents sued a paper mill company  for contaminating their environment. As industry grew in the area, the population of Africatown shrank from approximately 12,000 in the 1960s to fewer than 2,000 today. A four-lane bridge, called the Cochrane-Africatown USA bridge, was completed in 1991 and cuts right through the heart of Africatown. 

In their efforts to fight back, Africatown residents formed an environmental justice organization called CHESS (which stands for Clean, Healthy, Educated, Safe and Sustainable), led by Major Joe Womack, who has partnered with Texas Southern University and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice to fight for better environmental health conditions in the area. Their work focuses on establishing a Safe Zone for Africatown to reduce pollution and prevent industrial expansion into the community. Such a safe zone is vital for residents to sustain their community for future generations. It also supports the work undertaken by residents to preserve their unique history and educate people about it. The community has been working hard to bolster tourism, especially after the discovery of the remains of The Clotilda.

An unjust transportation project

Africatown residents were recently confronted with more challenges. In early June, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) of Mobile and Baldwin County announced a plan to revive a previous bridge project that had been declared dead in 2019. In the new plan, a bridge would be built for trucks over 46 feet in length, which would not be permitted to use, as they currently do,  the Wallace Tunnel to cross Mobile Bay between Mobile County and Baldwin County. The sticking point is that the truck-only bridge would be tolled at $10 to $15 each way.

Transportation studies conducted for each of the MPOs conclude that truckers would avoid the toll by traveling on the only alternate route, which is through Africatown and connects to the Cochrane-Africatown USA bridge. These studies do not address the significant negative impacts that the diverted truck traffic would have on Africatown residents. And yet both MPOs approved the truck-only toll bridge plan over the concerns raised by Africatown residents as well as other members of the public, including truckers and trucking associations.

Why is the truck-only toll bridge a bad idea?

This project would mean more air pollution for Africatown residents and visitors, on top of all the other sources of industrial pollution which disproportionately burdens the community. There is evidence, mentioned in the Mobile draft amendment to the 2045 Long Range Transportation Plan, of an increase in truck traffic from the Bayway to the Cochrane-Africatown USA bridge because of the toll, bringing with it more diesel exhaust: “An obvious conclusion can be made that a truck toll on the I-10 with an un-tolled option on US90 will put a strain on the capacity of I-65, the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge”.

Many studies show that breathing diesel exhaust leads to premature death and increased hospitalization from chronic cardiac and pulmonary diseases, including asthma and decreased lung function in children. Studies in California estimated that 70% of total known cancer risk from air pollutants is attributable to diesel particulate matter. Diesel-powered trucks are a major source of extremely toxic emissions made up of fine particulate matter (PM2.5),  nitrogen oxides (NOx), and volatile organic compounds. PM2.5  is a mix of miniscule solid and liquid particles that is very harmful for human health. Compared to gasoline engines, the higher operating temperature of diesel engines favors the formation of NOx., and diesel engines emit over 40 organic compounds such as benzene and formaldehyde, many of which are highly carcinogenic.

On the safety front, rerouted truck traffic increases the risk of serious collisions with large rigs, and threatens the safety of residents and tourists, not to mention the fact that the Africatown bridge is an evacuation route. African Americans are struck and killed by drivers at a rate 82 percent higher than white and non-Hispanic people. Proponents of the bridge plan argue that the Wallace Tunnel is dangerous, and that diverting truck traffic to a bridge would improve safety, but they are not acknowledging that the project would divert not just air pollution but collisions as well.

Furthermore, increased truck traffic would hurt Africatown’s opportunity to build a local economy based on its unique role in American history, which is gaining significant attention. Tourism holds a tremendous economic potential for the community, and also allows residents to tell their story, honor their descendants, and make sure that this episode in the history of slavery in this country is never forgotten.

People of color already breathe more polluted air

Studies show that air pollution in the U.S. is distributed inequitably, with people of color exposed to higher concentrations of many kinds of pollutants. A recent study shows that PM2.5 emission sources, including industrial sources, power generation and roads, disproportionately expose people of color, regardless of income or location.  At UCS we did a study mapping PM2.5 exposure specifically from the vehicles on our roads – trucks, buses and cars. We included the PM2.5  emitted directly from tailpipes, as well as the secondary PM2.5 formed in the atmosphere from complex reactions with nitrogen and sulfur oxides and other substances. We then combined this exposure data with Census Bureau racial/ethnic data and found that communities of color are exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 than White Americans.

  • In Alabama, the average concentration of exposure for African Americans is 7% higher than for a person who breathes the average air in the state.  White people are exposed to air that is 4% cleaner than a person who breathes the average air in the state.   Comparing the 2 racial groups directly, exposure for African Americans is 11 percent higher than for whites.
  • In Mobile County, where Africatown is located, the difference is more pronounced. PM2.5 exposure is 12% higher for African Americans and 7% lower for whites. Comparing the two racial groups directly, exposure for African Americans is 20 percent higher than for whites.

No studies to date relating to the proposed bridge have included an evaluation of air pollution from the exhausts of the diverted truck traffic.  But the 2019 blocked proposal, which was broader in scope than the current project, included a study on air pollution impacts and on environmental justice, and states that “The projected impacts on the Africatown/Plateau community due to traffic diverting onto the non-tolled route are expected to be disproportionately high and adverse on EJ populations.”

Diesel exhaust leads to additional air pollution

The PM2.5 from the tailpipes of diesel-powered trucks are just part of the story, as some of these pollutants directly emitted from the exhaust of vehicles go on to produce even more air pollutants. A good example is ground-level ozone, often referred to as smog, or “bad” ozone (note that this is not the same as ozone in the upper atmosphere, frequently referred to as the “good” ozone, for it shields us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation).

High levels of ground-level ozone, in its own right, mean increased risk of serious health problems, as ozone aggressively attacks lung tissue, causes heart disease, and may harm the central nervous system and even cause reproductive harm. In mid-June Louisiana’s ozone levels surpassed the threshold of 100 on EPA’s air quality scale.  Above this threshold, vulnerable groups are especially at risk.

More heat, more air pollution

Truck tailpipe emission such as NOx, and VOCs are the raw ingredients for creating ground-level ozone. This process takes place in the presence of sunlight and is intensified when temperatures are elevated, so it is not good news that a heat wave is underway across the Southeast.

A 2019 study estimates that in Mobile, AL, historically there have been 10 days per year with heat index above 100oF, but by 2050 this number of days could increase to anywhere from 51 to 73 days per year, depending on the actions taken to reduce global warming. This heat index, which factors in humidity, is a tool developed by the National Weather Service (AWS) to serve as guidance to inform official heat watches, warnings and advisories.  At this 100oF level, NWS advisories state that there is increased risk of heat stress and heat illnesses for older adults, children, people with lung disease, people with other underlying health conditions, and people who work outdoors. At a heat index of 105oF, even healthy adults are at risk.

These projections of increase in extreme heat are bad news in two ways. An increase in extreme heat is deadly in its own right, causing heat-related illnesses such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. But extreme heat also means conditions that favor an increase in the creation of ground-level ozone, as is the case right now in some areas of the Southeast.

Rising global temperatures exacerbate the problem of air pollution.  Because of climate change, we can expect rapid, widespread increases in extreme heat across the country, and the Southeast is already one of the hottest parts of the country.  

What can we do?

  • Tell the U.S. Department of Transportation to protect the civil rights of Africatown residents by not funding ALDOT’s truck bridge project. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits the use of federal funds to discriminate against people based on race, color, or national origin. ALDOT seeks $425 million in federal funds for the truck bridge that poses severe health and safety risks for Africatown residents.
  • Tell the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to improve air quality in Africatown. An important place to start is with the installation of air quality monitoring equipment,  an important strategy to produce the data needed to persuade decision makers that increasing truck traffic going through communities is a bad idea.  Under the 2015 Clean Air Act, ambient air quality monitoring is required to assess if a location meets the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for criteria pollutants. Major emission sources such as power plants are required to install pollution control equipment and must meet specific emission limits. But there is no such requirement for installing air pollution monitors near roads, even heavily used ones. In the Mobile area, the closest active air PM2.5 pollution monitor is more than 3 miles northwest of Africatown. The responsibility to protect communities should fall on polluters and regulators, but it is also important for communities to advocate for the installation of air quality monitors with local and federal air quality agencies.  Communities can also enter research partnerships exemplified by the Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health study in Boston, MA, and many others around the country.
  • Support the transition to electrification. One very effective way to decrease local air pollution from vehicles is to replace diesel-powered trucks with trucks that have zero tailpipe emissions: trucks powered on electricity or on fuel-cells. Eliminating tailpipe emissions from heavy duty trucks is particularly important to improve health in communities that are located near truck routes. Policies that accomplish this are already underway in California. A recent study from UCS shows the importance of decarbonizing transportation, and the role of investments and policies in this effort to reduce the amount of freight traffic in the country. The study shows that transportation can be decarbonized if 50 percent of sales of zero-emission heavy duty trucks are powered by electricity or hydrogen by 2035, and if these sales are 100 percent by 2040.  Another UCS study discusses the health benefits of electric trucks and how they are increasingly available. Transitioning all vehicles away from burning fossil fuels also means an air pollution and climate “win-win”: we can reduce local air pollution at the same time we reduce climate-damaging carbon dioxide emissions. And let’s not forget that global warming can exacerbate local air pollution, as the story of ozone tells us.

Air quality monitoring is an important first step, as is eliminating gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles from our roads. Still, even though these are powerful solutions, they are partial solutions.  We need to support the rights of Africatown residents to live in a healthy and safe environment, and their right to preserve their history.

About the author

More from Cecilia

Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura conducts research on transportation energy and emissions, and performs analyses in support of regional and national policy campaigns that aim to reduce oil use and mitigate vehicle emissions. Dr. Pinto de Moura also works with the UCS Climate & Energy modeling team on national transportation energy and emissions modeling.