Locomotive breath

The state moves to reduce diesel emissions in rail yards, but critics say it’s not fast enough

Annually, more than 30,000 locomotives pass through the Union Pacific J.R. Davis Yard in Roseville.

Annually, more than 30,000 locomotives pass through the Union Pacific J.R. Davis Yard in Roseville.

Photo By Cole Allen

Five years ago, a study found that residents who lived near rail yards in California suffer a greater risk of cancer. The results reinforced the need for the state to implement mitigation measures, and last week the California Air Resources Board met to consider recommendations to reduce diesel emissions associated with rail yard activities.

However, according to some environmentalists, the train is running behind schedule.

“The risk is so high, we really feel the state needs to act in an urgent manner,” said Angelo Logan, executive director of the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

Among the recommendations being considered by CARB are greater use of low-sulfur diesel fuel, reduction of idling, enhanced inspection and locomotive retrofits. But critics warn that the implementation measures do not go far enough to adequately protect public health.

The Union Pacific J.R. Davis Yard in Roseville—the largest service and maintenance yard in the western United States—served as a catalyst for the state’s cleanup efforts. More than 30,000 locomotives pass through the site annually. The health-risk findings are of particular concern in Roseville because the city’s rapid development during the past decade has put more residents in close proximity to the yard.

In addition to public health concerns, the cleanup plan addresses the state’s ongoing efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in accordance with California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. Transportation produces 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions, a significant portion of which comes from the movement of goods.

Following the completion of the Roseville health-risk assessment, CARB, Union Pacific and BNSF Railway entered into a voluntary agreement in 2005 to develop new regulations to reduce locomotive and associated diesel particulate emissions by 85 percent by the year 2020.

Under this agreement, CARB conducted health-risk assessments for 17 additional rail yards looking at diesel particulate matter and found that more than 3 million people are exposed to excess cancer risks from rail yard activity. Additionally, exposure to this toxin may be responsible for premature death due to respiratory and cardiovascular disease. The longer the exposure, the greater the risk.

The Roseville assessment found that increased exposure can occur over a 100-plus-square-mile area. The Roseville yard encompasses about 950 acres that parallels Interstate 80—commercial, residential and industrial properties surround the site—and locomotive operations produce an estimated 25 tons of diesel particulate matter annually. Moving locomotives account for about 50 percent, and idling locomotives account for 45 percent of total emissions.

CARB’s recommendation plan addresses emissions from locomotives, cargo-handling equipment, drayage trucks, transport-refrigeration units and other sources.

“These regulations require the best available emission-control technologies and have already started being phased in,” said Karen Caesar, public information officer for CARB.

The recommendations focus on three types of locomotives that operate in California: switch locomotives, medium-horsepower locomotives that run regionally and line-haul locomotives that travel across the country.

“The recommendations that will provide the most expeditious reduction in emissions … are to repower switch locomotives and medium-horsepower locomotives and then retrofit these locomotives with emission controls to reduce diesel particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen,” Caesar said. “The accelerated replacement of line hauls is important, but a longer-term measure.”

Existing agreements combined with federal regulations will collectively reduce emissions around rail yards from today’s levels by more than 50 percent by 2015.

But Logan said there is no guarantee the changes will happen, because it’s up to rail companies to participate in the incentive-based program.

“To expect we’re going to meet public health standards by voluntary measures is unrealistic,” Logan said, adding that he believes CARB “is driven by fear of the reaction of rail companies.”