Photo depicting the Duwamish River from a vehicle bridge.

A Duwamish Valley Truck Electrification Program Looks to Reduce Air Pollution

by Tushar Khurana

But the program faces a legacy of driver exploitation…

For months, the news has been brimming with stories of the so-called “supply chain crisis” — the disruption of shipping and manufacturing that has stranded cargo carriers and logjammed containers at ports around the world, resulting in PPE shortages, empty grocery shelves, and a general scarcity of consumer goods. But for many communities, the global distribution system’s routine operations present regular supply chain crises of a different sort. 

Air pollution is one such example, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in the U.S. alone, diesel emissions from ships, trains, and trucks lead to substantial health risks for over 13 million people, disproportionately Black and Latino, who live in proximity to freight facilities.

In the Duwamish Valley — South Seattle’s own near-port community, which is also plagued by industrial pollution and is a toxic Superfund site — zero-emission electric trucks could play a role in solving this problem locally. Since last spring, City officials and the Duwamish River Community Coalition (DRCC) have been working with technical advisors, community members, and drivers to explore how a transition to electric trucking might fit into current port operations and address community priorities, and they hope to initiate a pilot program in the coming years. But if poorly implemented, some worry that the cost of this transition might be borne by the truck drivers themselves, compounding a legacy of labor exploitation in the industry.

The DRCC has been documenting the lethal effects of air pollution in Seattle’s industrial corridor for decades. In a 2013 report, they calculated that childhood asthma hospitalization rates in South Park and Georgetown were more than double that of the surrounding neighborhoods, and that residents in this zip code can expect to live eight years less than the Seattle average. 

There is a constellation of polluters — including the airport, ships, cargo cranes, and heavy industry — which contribute to these disparities but trucks are a key part of the puzzle. As Adrienne Hampton-Clarridge, climate justice policy manager at DRCC, describes, “port trucking has been a long standing issue that the community has advocated for to be resolved.” Parked and idling trucks have continually frustrated residents, and a 2009 health survey in the area found that over 60% of the respondents were worried that pollution from commercial trucks was negatively impacting their health. The science also suggests that focusing on trucks may deliver the most immediate results.

“According to a study by Washington State University examining port operations,” explains Hampton-Clarridge, “trucks have the highest impact on local pollution exposure and health because they are just making short trips back and forth through these neighborhoods.” She adds, “It’s not just air pollution but also public safety. There are so many trucks in the neighborhood and you don’t see that in any other community in Seattle. If you have a truck speeding through your neighborhood and kids are just walking to school, that’s a cause for concern.”

While electric cars are increasingly common, larger electric vehicles are still a novelty. Research suggests that buses and trucks could be responsible for up to 30% of Washington State’s total greenhouse gas emissions and more than half of the state’s roadside particulate pollution. In the last year, State legislators have passed multiple laws aimed at reducing emissions. According to Claire Buysse, a researcher at the International Council for Clean Transportation and a technical advisor on this electrification project, perhaps the most significant step taken to reduce heavy-duty vehicle emissions is Washington’s recent adoption of the Advanced Clean Trucks Rule, “which requires auto manufacturers to deliver an increasing number of zero-emission vehicles for sale every year. Washington is now one of six states that have adopted this regulation.”

Unlike their long distance counterparts that drive thousands of miles a week carrying goods across the country, the vehicles servicing the ports are “drayage,” or short-haul, trucks that often shuttle containers between the port and local warehouses. Their shorter urban routes make them particularly well-suited to electrification. “Port trucks drive fewer miles in a day and it is easier to install the necessary charging infrastructure,” Buysse explains. “It is also an issue of equity, since the reduction in tailpipe emissions directly benefits near-port communities who have a disproportionately high exposure to air pollution.”

To prioritize equitable outcomes, the project team is also focused on the drivers themselves. “Something that is really key here is making sure the smaller companies and independent drivers aren’t being put at risk or losing income because the industry is transitioning to electric vehicles,” says Buysse. “We’re looking at business models, policies, and incentives that would work for drivers, and if done well, put more money in their pockets.” But to do so, they are contending with a thorny history of deregulation and casualized labor that has shaped this particular industry.

In the 1970s, trucking was one of the better blue-collar jobs in the U.S. Nearly 60% of the workforce was unionized, and the Teamsters union negotiated a single contract — the National Master Freight Agreement — that set wage standards for the entire industry. Measured in today’s dollars, annual driver salaries often amounted to more than $100,000. However, a series of actions beginning with the federal Motor Carrier Act of 1980 deregulated the industry. Today, trucker unionization rates are at less than 10% nationally, and in 2020 the median annual driver salary was $47,000. In a move that paved the way for companies like Uber and Lyft decades later, misclassifying drivers as “independent contractors” became standard practice, allowing companies to pay drivers per load and avoid paying overtime, sick leave, and any other benefits that regular employees are legally required to have.

According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, “analysts have documented the most egregious record of misclassification” in port drayage, estimating that “85–90% of port driving operations are carried out by contractors.” Like rideshare and delivery drivers, this poorly paid industry segment also depends on a racialized immigrant labor pool. While exact data is scarce, small trucking company owners and contractors interviewed by the Emerald, who wished to remain anonymous and who easily met basic misclassification criteria, suggested that a majority of their coworkers at the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma are African, Latino, South Asian, Russian, and Ukrainian immigrants.

This labor model means that truck drivers, some of the lowest paid workers in the industry, have already been forced to absorb the costs of previous environmental regulations on trucking emissions.

In 2019, the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma began requiring all drivers to have a model year 2007 or newer truck engine outfitted with a diesel emissions filter, a move that led to protests and strikes as drivers were given the choice of purchasing a vehicle they could not afford or losing their jobs. While a few grant and loan programs were offered to assist drivers in that transition, according to one driver, “the programs were totally mishandled. They should have made an effort to contact every driver that goes in and out of the ports and equitably distribute the funds. Instead, the independent contractors were the last ones to hear about the program. The companies that are bigger and more organized received the money … and the interest rates in the loan program were huge.”

An internal briefing shared with the Emerald by the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA), which manages the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, suggests that these programs were far from adequate. When funding for the grant program ran out in 2017, only 413 trucks had been replaced, and half of the 4,500 trucks had yet to meet the 2007 standards. Only 19 drivers had enrolled in the loan program.

Drivers are similarly wary of the push towards electrification because without substantial policy support, the cost of a new electric vehicle would likely put them out of business. While prices vary, new electric semis currently cost upwards of $300,000. As one employee of a small trucking company said, “Nobody can afford that much. Most owner operators can’t even afford to buy new [diesel] trucks. We usually buy used trucks that are still in good condition for an average of $45,000 to $70,000.”

But as Hampton-Claridge explains, “We’re really focused on who has been historically harmed and who carries the most financial burden because of drayage trucks, and that is the community and the drivers. We’re asking ourselves what we can do to make sure these two communities can have equitable and just outcomes instead of one community benefitting at the expense of another. There’s kind of an environmental justice story on both ends … I think that this project has a niche for a creative model where there is no undue burden on either side.” She adds that many of the drivers live in the Duwamish Valley themselves, blurring the distinction between them and the communities pushing for cleaner air.

Both the Duwamish Valley’s overabundance of trucks and the exploitation of truckers have roots in a global system of manufacturing in which consumer goods are made abundant and inexpensive through their centralized production in Asia and cost cutting along every step of the supply chain. These pressures have ramped up through the increase in e-commerce. While in the past, as the NWSA shared in an interview with the Emerald, a majority of cargo entering the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma was directly loaded onto rail cars instead of truck beds, that ratio has now reversed. Increasing numbers of containers are now being transported via truck to warehouses in south King County where they are repackaged and delivered to customers’ doorsteps.

As large companies like Amazon, which are responsible for these changes, face increasing pressure to reduce their carbon emissions, Hampton-Claridge expressed reservations about vehicle electrification being seen as a sweeping, comprehensive solution. “This cannot be something where big corporations latch on and say, ‘We’re going to go electric, we’re going to eliminate pollution, and then our job is done,’ but then the status quo stays the same or reaches a new equilibrium. That doesn’t necessarily move us away from an extractive model and towards a just transition.” Electrification on its own will not resolve the excessive number of trucks from their neighborhood, and mining for electric vehicle batteries is polluting air and rivers across the world in ways that are familiar to residents along the Duwamish.

“We also need to not just think about our Duwamish Valley,” says Hampton-Claridge. “I think there are a lot of big question marks when you expand your thinking of climate justice from a local scale to a global scale. But in the near-term, this is one step in a larger equation.”

Tushar Khurana (he/him) lives, writes, and organizes in South Seattle. He has a background in climate science, environmental policy, and clean energy.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Andy Nystrom (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

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