After blocking Southern California port expansion projects for seven years and forcing ports to address air emissions health risks, the Natural Resources Defense Council is turning its attention to California railyards.
In a letter to BNSF and Union Pacific railroads, the NRDC and two local environmental organizations accused the railroads of violating the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act through the “improper disposal of solid wastes” at railyards.
The NRDC charged the railyards present respiratory and cancer risks for thousands of nearby residents through the emissions of “solid and liquid particles discharged into the air and deposited onto land and water.” The pollution in question is primarily diesel particulate emissions.
Under the federal law, the NRDC gave the railroads 90 days’ notice that it intends to sue unless each of the railroads meets with NRDC attorneys to discuss mitigation plans.
“The next step could be negotiations on how to avoid a lawsuit,” said Melissa Lin Perrella, the NRDC’s lead attorney.
Although the threatened legal action involves 10 existing railyards in California operated by UP and seven by BNSF, it could affect two important near-dock rail projects five miles from Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor. UP plans to double capacity at its Intermodal Container Transfer Facility, and BNSF is seeking approval to construct its 1 million-lift-per-year Southern California International Gateway.
The draft environmental impact reports for the ICTF and SCIG projects are scheduled for release by fall. Although Los Angeles and Long Beach have extensive on-dock rail capacity, planners believe the operations can accommodate no more than 35 percent of port container volume, so there is a pressing need for near-dock rail capacity.
To win approval for the EIRs, the railroads will commit to the latest pollution-reduction technologies for line-haul and switcher locomotives and cargo-handling equipment in the yards. They also will allow only those trucks that comply with federal Environmental Protection Agency standards to call at the near-dock yards.
The NRDC, however, wants the railroads to implement similar measures at their yards serving the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, as well as at yards that handle domestic rail traffic.
Perrella charged the California railyards produce health risks that far exceed the “excess cancer risk greater than 10 in a million” standard that governs air emissions in the state.
Although BNSF and UP each signed a memorandum of understanding with the California Air Resources Board to reduce pollution in the short term and phase in new technologies for greater gains long term, the railroads could do much more to address present and future health risks at yards, Perrella said.
BNSF questions the NRDC’s approach to pollution reduction. “The announcement by NRDC and its allies is misdirected and represents another attempt to attack the region’s goods movement industry through the railroads,” BNSF said.
BNSF cited its memorandum of understanding with CARB, which it says has been commended by the EPA. The railroad also emphasized it has agreed to introduce clean, modern locomotives into its California fleet 20 years earlier than in the rest of the country. Its voluntary efforts have reduced diesel particulate emissions from railyards by at least 50 percent since 2005, BNSF said.
UP says it complies with all state and federal environmental laws, and the railroad has worked with regulators at both levels to implement more voluntary pollution-reduction measures.
UP meets with local community groups to address concerns over emissions at the railyards and “will continue having that dialogue,” spokesman Tom Lange said. “Union Pacific has the most efficient locomotive fleet in the industry and will continue working with federal and state regulators in California in an effort to keep the American economy moving in a safe, efficient and environmentally responsible manner.”
The NRDC proposes several mitigation measures the railroads could take, some of which could be accelerated, while others would be phased in as technology is developed. The measures are similar to many included in the Clean Air Action Plan adopted by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
For example, the NRDC calls for the use of cleaner locomotives for line-haul and switching operations. The Tier 3 locomotives designed to meet federal emissions requirements would be deployed at an accelerated pace beginning next year, as would the Tier 4 locomotives the EPA is calling for beginning in 2015.
The NRDC said the railroads should limit locomotive idling at existing yards to 15 minutes or less, and they should electrify cargo-handling equipment such as yard hostlers and cranes and deploy plug-in electrification of transportation refrigeration units. And the railroads should implement measures in nearby communities, the group said, such as creating health protective buffers between yards and residential areas and providing filtration systems for homes and buildings.
The NRDC also proposes the railroads create a fund to deploy community clinics and breath mobiles to monitor health of residents in high-risk areas.
Despite existing efforts by the railroads, the yards throughout California still present “significant” health risks to neighboring communities, Perrella said. What the railroads have done and are committed to do is “simply not enough,” she said.
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at email@example.com.