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Air-quality regulators to study health effects of San Bernardino Rail Yard

The in-depth examination will try to determine whether the inland shipping hub has caused an increase in cancer and asthma in nearby low-income communities.

June 09, 2011|Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Cargo in transit sits on the grounds of the massive BSNF rail yard in San Bernardino. A new study is being launched to investigate what the state suggests are serious health threats to the surrounding community.
Cargo in transit sits on the grounds of the massive BSNF rail yard in San Bernardino.… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

Southern California air-quality regulators are sponsoring an in-depth study to determine if the San Bernardino Rail Yard, a major inland hub of goods shipped across the U.S., has caused an increase in cancer and asthma in the neighboring low-income communities.

The study comes two years after the California Air Resources Board determined that diesel emissions from locomotives, big-rigs and other equipment at the facility posed a significant health risk to thousands of residents living near the site, and that the facility posed the greatest cancer risk of any rail yard in California.

"The is an opportunity to finally gauge the nature and extent of the problem," said San Bernardino Mayor Patrick Morris.

The San Bernardino Rail Yard is a 168-acre Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway facility operating around-the-clock in the heart of San Bernardino, a critical transfer hub for big-rigs and freight trains hauling cargo.

A federal appeals court last year struck down an effort by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which is sponsoring the new study, to limit emissions from the locomotives. The court ruled that the agency overstepped its authority, and that only the federal government can regulate interstate commerce.

The new two-year study will be conducted by researchers at Loma Linda University, and will determine the number of new and fatal cancer cases in the area from 1999 to 2008. It will include a household and school-based survey to determine the prevalence of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Researchers also will be taking air samples inside homes to gauge the amount of airborne particulates.

Sam Soret, chairman of the environmental and occupational health studies program at Loma Linda, said the team will go home to home, checking the lung capacity and respiratory inflammation of adult residents, and also examine children at an elementary school near the rail yard. The study also may incorporate data from an ongoing UCLA study on air quality around rail yards in San Bernardino, Commerce and Long Beach.

As part of the study, Loma Linda also will provide medical treatment to residents affected by the emissions.

Sylvia Betancourt, of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, an environmental advocacy organization in Riverside, said she hopes the study's findings will persuade federal and state regulators to crack down on toxic air pollution coming from rail facilities. She said there has been little willingness by rail companies to address the health concerns.

"We expect that we'll be able to document what people already have been suspecting, that it's a health risk to the community," Betancourt said. "The rail industry can change the way that they operate. They can move to a technology that's zero emissions, but they refuse to."

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway spokeswoman Lena Kent said the company has been committed to reducing emissions at the San Bernardino rail yard. The company has installed automatic gates to decrease idling by incoming big rigs, and purchased low emission rail equipment used to move containers and rail cars. The company also agreed to make its fleet of locomotives in California the cleanest, on average, in the state.

"Basically, we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, not only in San Bernardino but across California to reduce emissions," Kent said.

She said the company has resisted calls by environmentalists to convert the rail yard to an all-electric facility, similar to a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway proposal for a new facility near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, because the San Bernardino yard would have to be shut down for months.

phil.willon@latimes.com

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