The expanding rail yards east of Los Angeles, brimming with foreign cargo from the area’s two ports, are a brawny symbol of Southern California’s growing stature as one of the world’s great crossroads of international trade.
But the economic bonanza is exacting a rising price. Exhaust and soot from diesel locomotives, ships and planes are dirtying the air in neighborhoods from Wilmington to Commerce, threatening to undermine decades of progress toward healthful air.
Alarmed by the procession of smoke-belching freight trains rumbling out of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles -- their number is expected to double by 2020 -- Southern California’s chief smog-fighting agency is seeking approval from the Legislature to impose a fee on locomotives that do not substantially reduce smog-forming emissions.
The fee proposal is part of a broader attempt by the South Coast Air Quality Management District to strengthen its authority over a variety of pollution sources, including the principal engines of global trade -- trains, ships and planes.
Last year, the Greater Los Angeles area experienced a smoggy relapse: 68 bad air days, a 28% increase from the previous year and nearly 50% more than in 2001. Last summer, air quality officials declared the first Stage 1 health alert since 1998. The public warning that the air was dangerous for everyone to breathe is one officials had thought they might never need to issue again.
“We’re trying to shine a bright light on the railroads, because of the impact they are having on air quality in local communities,” said Barry Wallerstein, the AQMD’s executive officer, adding that the district was going to bring railroad companies “to the table, one way or another, and have a serious discussion about air pollution.”
However, the legislation is strongly opposed by two powerful adversaries: Union Pacific Railroad and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
The railroads helped scuttle a similar bill sponsored by the AQMD last year that would have allowed the agency to place a pollution fee on ships, airplanes and trains. Such a move would almost certainly be challenged in court as a violation of federal laws that give Washington oversight over railroads because of their importance to interstate commerce.
The railroads, which haul an estimated $100 billion in goods out of the region every year, note that they are responsible for a relatively small share of Southern California’s air pollution problems -- roughly 3% of smog-forming fumes.
And they argue that they are already doing their part to clean up the air by volunteering to bring a fleet of cleaner locomotives to the region by 2010, replacing engines as much as 40 years old. Under an agreement with the California Air Resources Board, the railroads have volunteered to bring in hundreds of newer, cleaner locomotives, each costing $2 million to $3 million.
“Railroads are dramatically better than the other choices society has to move goods around,” said Kirk Markwald, a San Francisco-based consultant to the industry, adding that trains actually pollute far less than their chief competition, big-rig trucks. “It would be wrong to conclude railroads have not been doing anything.”
Acknowledging that he faces an uphill battle, the AQMD’s Wallerstein argued that he had no choice but to seek the power to impose the fees.
Four-fifths of the emission sources that combine to form Southern California’s smog -- exhaust from trains, trucks, ships and airplanes and fumes from consumer products such as hairspray -- are primarily regulated by the state and federal government.
But the state air board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Wallerstein contends, refuse to set policies strict enough to meet Southern California’s extraordinary air pollution challenge. Most of the AQMD’s authority lies in regulating emissions from power plants, refineries, gas stations and factories.
The Clean Air Act requires the Los Angeles region to cut ozone, the main ingredient in smog, in half by 2010. Failure to do so could lead to billions of dollars in lost highway funding and other economic sanctions in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Experts believe that the deadline will be impossible to meet unless government officials take drastic new measures.
EPA administrator Mike Leavitt has announced that the federal agency is considering requiring trains to use cleaner-burning fuel as part of a new rule to be made final this year. The EPA is also contemplating tougher engine standards for future locomotives. However, the agency has not made a final decision on either move, officials said.
Although cars, buses and trucks together emit roughly half of the area’s smog-forming fumes, the railroads’ contribution is not negligible. Every day, trains in Southern California spew 36.5 tons of nitrogen oxide, one of the building blocks of smog -- more than the area’s 100 largest factories, power plants and oil refineries combined.
Diesel locomotives also emit nearly 2 tons per day of particulate matter -- tiny airborne specks of dust and soot that can become lodged in the lungs and lead to respiratory problems. An AQMD study concluded that 70% of the cancer risk related to air pollution in the four-county area stemmed from diesel engine exhaust, making reductions a major public health priority.
Although railroads may be more environmentally efficient, “they are really losing their edge, because trucks are getting cleaner,” said Diane Bailey, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
In Commerce, where working-class neighborhoods are only feet from bustling Union Pacific and Burlington Northern rail yards, residents who have complained for years about noise and flashing lights are now blaming smoke and soot from the trains for increased respiratory illnesses.
In response to reports that trains belching diesel exhaust run idle for hours at a time near open residential windows, local air district officials have begun citing the train companies. But community activists say the railroads have made few changes. The trains, they say, often just move down a few blocks and idle beside someone else’s house.
“Interstate commerce should not supersede community health, but that’s the way it seems to work,” said Angelo Logan, who grew up in Commerce on a street beside a rail yard and returned to work as an activist with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. “Maybe the cumulative impact of the trains is not as bad as the trucks. But when you live near these trains, it’s like having a thousand trucks by your house. The impact is huge."Noting that the railroads volunteered six years ago to replace the oldest, dirtiest engines, Mark Stehly, an assistant vice president on environmental issues for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, said: “We have agreed to things that others have not agreed to do.”
“We think our contributions are very positive. I will leave it to others to say, ‘Where are the trucks and ships?’ ”
Officials with the state air board predict that the agreement will reduce the railroads’ air pollution by 67%.
Catherine Witherspoon, the board’s executive director, said she didn’t think it fair to criticize the 1998 replacement agreement “as lacking a substantive commitment by the railroads, because it is a big commitment. It’s a two-thirds reduction.”
But AQMD officials dispute that claim, asserting that, in reality, the replacement will only cut emissions a little more than half, because overall train traffic will grow substantially by 2010.
The AQMD wants the railroads to begin replacing diesel engines with hybrids and natural gas trains, and contends that the move could easily cut emissions 50% more than would be accomplished under the railroads’ plan.
The railroads’ proposal, negotiated behind closed doors with the state air board, has also drawn criticism from environmental groups, which cite it as a classic example of railroads’ sidestepping tough regulations and setting their own terms.
Because the plan is not a government regulation, environmental groups cannot sue to enforce it if the freight companies fail to carry it out. Moreover, the railroads can walk away from the proposal if the state attempts to impose any new restrictions on the industry between now and 2010.
The EPA had been contemplating tougher regulations on the railroads before the freight companies made the voluntary concessions. The companies later employed a similar strategy in Houston, which has a smog problem nearly as severe as that of Los Angeles, by agreeing to a voluntary reduction pact with Texas officials.
The railroads “are smarter and smoother than others in the environmental arena, and they have been more successful” in shaping regulations to their satisfaction, said David Jesson, an EPA air expert based in San Francisco.