Big Black Cloud

Chapel Hill News logoJune 13, 2010

Black Smoke Truck ExhaustMy latest column in CHN’s long-running “My View” series.

As I made a left onto South Columbia Street, the morning sun slanted through the trees, sending diagonal strips of light across the spring air.

I had pulled in behind a dump truck with a load of dirt or rocks in its bed. At the traffic signal, the truck stopped and I behind it. When the truck moved forward on the green light, a huge plume of black exhaust erupted from its stack and hovered, darkening roadside, like a mini eclipse.

Maybe it was the shape of the billowing cloud that reminded me of the spewing oil gash deep in the Gulf. Or maybe it was watching the pedestrians – who were waiting for the bus by the side of the road – cover their faces with their arms as the smoke hit them. Maybe it was that I felt helpless thinking about all those pelicans and fish and marshes and fishermen, that propelled me, at the next light, to pullup to the left of the truck, wanting to roll down my passenger side window and say something – I had no idea what – to the truck’s driver.

I couldn’t get his attention. I did, though, see the name and phone number of the company this truck belonged to.

Don’t have a wreck, I told myself – an air quality violation rage attack. It’s not the guy’s driving that’s bothering me. It’s his exhaust. But I felt I had to DO SOMETHING.

I pulled a legal pad and pen from my purse and scrawled the company name and phone number. At the bottleneck where the traffic went to one-lane I let the truck pull ahead of me.

The truck turned down Raleigh Road – so did I – and into yet another campus construction site near the Bell Tower. I thought of following it. Why? I don’t exactly know. But I went straight, not wanting to turn into the dusty construction mess.

Go ahead, I told myself, call the company. If you don’t do it now, you never will.

Forget it, another voice countered. You see this sort of air pollution every day. But isn’t that one of the problems in this world? We’re complacent; we never do anything about anything. Or at least I don’t, not enough anyway.

An image crossed my mind, of blackened sea birds, mouths open in wordless protest.

Heading past Carmichael Gym, I pulled out my iPhone and tapped the Burlington number into my keypad. The phone rang. A man picked up and said the company name, so and so and sons. He sounded like a nice person, perhaps an older man, definitely Southern – perhaps the father or grandfather of this family business.

“Um, my name is Carol Henderson,” I started, “and I’ve been driving behind one of your trucks over here in Chapel Hill …”

He explained something about the fuel line or the oil something or other in that truck and said, “Ma’am, it’s just so expensive to try to fix that.”

I imagined his nice family and their business, and their struggles with health insurance and truck maintenance and having to compete for earth-hauling jobs.

I told him I hoped he could fix that truck soon. He thanked me. I thanked him. We hung up.

So I thought. A lot of good that did. Pat yourself on the back, you good citizen. I sighed.

Fast forward 10 days.

That exhaust is still bothering me. I go to the EPA website, scroll around, and eventually find the “Smoking Vehicle Complaint Form.” The first line requires the license plate. Darn. I don’t have that.

I call the contact person, tell her the entire story. She talks about “a certain opacity,” that people who aren’t trained to see don’t know how to gauge. That sort of thing.

She said she will write a letter to the company. “That’s all I can do,” she told me.

“Well,” I said. “I guess I’ve done about all I can do too.”