It’s Past Time to Do the Right Thing: Ditching Dirty Diesel Will Save Lives

Guest blog post by Jim Serrill.

Last week I did something I’ve never done before — I spent the day at our State Capitol speaking with legislators about an issue that’s very close to my heart: diesel pollution.

The Oregon Legislature is considering SB 1008, a package of solutions to address the health threat old dirty diesel engines pose to our health and our air. I’ve had direct experience with this — as a career line clearance tree trimmer for nearly 40 years who used diesel-powered equipment on the job, and as someone who was diagnosed with cancer following many years of that diesel exposure.

Jim shows Representative Brian Clem a photo of the trucks his workers utilized during logging work, as well as a photo of his work partner who was also diagnosed with cancer.

As I told lawmakers, there may be no smoking gun for a cancer cell, but it has been proven that certain professions carry higher risk of several kinds of cancer. Railroad workers, firefighters, truckers, miners and others like me all have one thing in common: our professions involve diesel engines and a high exposure to diesel exhaust. You can read my story here.

I met with lawmakers one-on-one in the hopes that sharing my story of diesel exposure would get this issue on their radar, and convince them to strengthen the bill. Recently SB 1008 was gutted and quietly passed out of the Senate Environment & Natural Resources Committee to Senate Committee on Rules. That’s very unfortunate, but there’s still a chance to strengthen the bill again before it is voted on.

Some of my meetings were very powerful, and I could sense that my story was putting the bill on lawmaker’s radars in a way they wouldn’t forget. I left feeling admiration for those who lobby their government on behalf of worthy causes every day, and for the lawmakers who listen to them. I am not as patient as they are, and when I see injustice, I get angry. It takes a certain temperament to be able to tell and listen to stories of injustice and act with a steady hand and measured mind, knowing that the work you’re doing may be building a bridge toward change, but not create it immediately. I understand that these things take time. But damn it, people are dying.

And in the process of writing this recap for you, someone dear to me did die.

One of my former co-workers, Dave, passed away last Sunday morning after struggling with many health problems, including heart disease, kidney failure and a stroke. He was an Iraqi War veteran who was exposed to inordinate amounts of diesel exhaust while driving a Bradley vehicle. Diesel exposure and chronic illness are so connected that the Department of Veteran’s Affairs even has a fact sheet on it that they make available to veterans, serviceman and their families.

Jim speaks with KPTV Fox 12 during his time in Salem.

But fact sheets rarely become relevant until the issue is already of concern. Dave was focused on serving his country, and as a young man, he didn’t know the risks of diesel exhaust. Those aren’t exactly explained to you as you’re being deployed to fight for your country.

Years later, when he worked for me, we both were exposed to more diesel through the equipment we used. I wish I’d known then what I know now.

It was humbling to have Dave work for me. He was a war veteran who saw thousands of unspeakable horrors, but he remained light hearted and had a great sense of humor. He was a man’s man, a hunter and a fisherman. He was well-read and kind; he was a deep thinker. He was a lot of great things. He was my friend. I loved that guy. I’m glad his suffering is over. Toward the end it became very hard for him. He was on dialysis three days a week. He couldn’t drive. His quality of life suffered severely. But you sure wouldn’t know it from just talking to him. His death still came as a surprise to me, even knowing how sick he was, because he was such a strong fighter — right until the end.

I went to Salem to tell my story. But now I realize I’m also fighting for those who have yet to be exposed to dirty diesel, who don’t know what they’re getting into. I’m fighting for Dave, and for those like him who can no longer advocate for change because they simply aren’t here. If we create enough public demand for change, we can make a difference here. There are so many things in this world that are unfair, unjust or even downright broken — and the solutions are complicated or even unattainable.

But not so with this.

We have a chance to tell our lawmakers to to put back the health protections in Senate Bill 1008. Make the bill strong again. A $72.9 million settlement with Volkswagen jumpstarts Oregon’s investment in cleaner engine technology. This is a problem we can fix, so let’s fix it. I ask you again to take action now. And today I ask on behalf of my friend, Dave.

Jim Serrill is a retired lumberjack, but he’s best known as the original mascot for the Portland Timbers. Watch more about Jim’s recent day lobbying in Salem by clicking here. Jim’s story was also profiled on KPTV Fox 12’s Timber’s pre-game show.


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