Local agencies can’t limit train emissions, court rules

Air quality watchdogs in Southern California can’t impose limits on emissions from idling trains because they could interfere with interstate commerce that the federal government regulates, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The decision dealt a blow to attempts by air quality regulators in the Los Angeles region, who have been attempting to limit emissions in the densely populated areas around San Pedro Bay ports, through which 40% of the nation’s containerized cargo flows. Emissions from trains, trucks and ships carrying the freight out to the rest of the country have been blamed for 2,100 early deaths each year, according to statistics from the California Air Resources Board.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a previous decision from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

The lawsuit filed by the Assn. of American Railroads and the BNSF and Union Pacific railroad companies challenged restrictions imposed in 2005 and 2006 by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which covers Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.


Residents and social justice organizations have been particularly active in protesting railroad pollution in the San Bernardino rail yard area, judged by the resources board to present the most acute health risk among California’s 18 most polluted rail hubs.

In cities along the Los Angeles river corridor, activists have taken aim at diesel pollution from four rail yards, including BNSF Railway’s Hobart facility, the world’s busiest “intermodal” yard, which transfers 1.2 million containers a year between trucks and trains. Diesel exhaust from trains and trucks is blamed for high cancer rates in several cities along the corridor.

But the air quality district’s rules are preempted by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995, which says state and local laws cannot unreasonably burden interstate commerce, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit said in its ruling.

The judges noted, however, that the local air quality district’s rules could eventually gain the force of law if incorporated into the state’s environmental regulations and approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed in the result,” the air quality district’s general counsel, Kurt Wiese, said of the 9th Circuit ruling. “The board has really been committed to making sure that railroads shoulder their fair share of cleaning up the air in Southern California.”

He pointed out the judges’ allusion to eventual enforcement of the local regulations, saying “the decision certainly lays out a path.”

Melissa Lin Perrella of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the air quality district and environmental groups throughout Southern California were working to develop new regulations that would reduce emissions by controlling the flow of freight from area ports onto the roads and rails.

“It’s no secret that Los Angeles has some of the worst air quality in the nation and year after year after year violates federal air quality standards,” Lin Perrella said.