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Railroads sued over diesel soot at California rail yards

Environmental groups demand that three rail companies replace older, more polluting locomotives and trucks, ban idling near homes and adopt technologies designed to reduce the particulate matter.

October 21, 2011|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • Jose Rios of Long Beach holds his granddaughter as a train passes. "The diesel fumes blacken our trees.... We have allergies and breathing problems," he says.
Jose Rios of Long Beach holds his granddaughter as a train passes. "The… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

A coalition of environmental groups is suing three companies that operate 17 rail yards throughout California, looking to eliminate the toxic diesel particulate emissions spewed by locomotives and trucks over surrounding communities.

In a complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the coalition demanded that Union Pacific Corp., Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC and BNSF Railway Co. replace older, more polluting locomotives and trucks with newer, cleaner models; prohibit idling near residences; and adopt technologies designed to reduce diesel soot.

The 17 rail yards targeted collectively emit more than 160 tons of diesel particulate matter a year, according to the California Air Resources Board, exposing nearby communities to health risks including cancer, asthma and respiratory and cardiac conditions.

Of particular concern to the coalition are two Southern California rail yards with millions of people living within eight miles of each: the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility near the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex and a BNSF facility on the west side of San Bernardino.

A health risk assessment conducted by state air quality authorities found the west side of San Bernardino to have the highest cancer risk from rail yard pollution of any community it studied in the state.

"For railroads, there are no limits on the emissions [of] their trains and trucks … it's the Wild West out there," said David Pettit, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed the suit along with Eastyard Communities for Environmental Justice and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.

"We're saying they have to stop killing people," Pettit said. "We are also asking the court to do something it has never done before, which is declare that diesel particulate matter is a hazardous waste under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act."

That act provides for comprehensive regulation of solid and hazardous wastes to prevent threats to human health and the environment. The lawsuit argues that diesel particulate matter, although initially transported by a gas, is a solid waste laden with heavy metals that are on the act's list of dangerous substances.

A Union Pacific spokesman, Aaron Hunt, said: "Though we have not yet seen the NRDC filing, Union Pacific remains in compliance with state and federal regulations."

BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent, said: "We do think the NRDC lawsuit is another attempt to attack the goods industry. We believe rail is the most environmentally efficient mode of surface transportation, and a solution to Southern California's air quality issues."

Coalition leaders disagreed. On Wednesday, they led a tour of west Long Beach neighborhoods adjacent to the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility.

The first stop was on West Columbia Street, where homes and the athletic field at Stephens Middle School abut a 15-foot-high sound wall separating them from the rail yard's trains and big rigs.

"The noise and vibrations are so bad my whole house shakes like an earthquake," said Sandra Johnson, 52. "I have three air cleaners in my home, but there's a heavy film of soot on the walls and counters. All I want is cleaner air and a longer life."

Standing on a corner with his 4-month-old granddaughter in his arms, homeowner Jose Rios, 56, shook his head as dozens of trains rolled in and out of the yard across the street.

"The diesel fumes blacken our trees. Vibrations crack our windows. We have allergies and breathing problems," he said. "It is getting worse because there are more trains than ever."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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