California to vote on ambitious locomotive emissions rule – KESQ

Associated Press/Report for America

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Every day, locomotives pull rail cars filled with food, lumber, oil and other goods through rail stations near neighborhoods in Oakland, Commerce, San Bernardino and other California cities.

They run on diesel, a more powerful fuel than gasoline, and burning all that diesel produces harmful pollution for people who live nearby, as well as greenhouse gases. The California Air Resources Board is trying to change that.

The agency votes Thursday on a rule that would ban the use of locomotive engines older than 23 years by 2030 and increase the use of zero-emissions technology to move cargo from ports and on rails. The rule would also prohibit locomotives in the state from idling for more than 30 minutes if equipped with an automatic shutdown.

The rule would be the most ambitious of its kind in the country.

“It will be innovative and address the diesel crisis that has been poisoning communities near rail stations for literal decades,” said Yasmine Agelidis, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental nonprofit.

Diesel exhaust is a health hazard. According to California regulators, diesel exhaust is responsible for about 70% of Californians’ cancer risk from toxic air pollution. The rule would cut emissions in a class of engines that annually release more than 640 tons of tiny pollutants that can get deep into a person’s lungs and worsen asthma and nearly 30,000 tons of smog-forming emissions known as nitrogen oxides. The rule would also dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from locomotives, by an amount similar to eliminating all heavy-duty trucks in the state by 2030.

For activists and residents who have lived in areas affected by heavy rail pollution, the fight for cleaner trains has been decades in the making.

Jan Victor Andasan, an activist with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, grew up in West Long Beach and now organizes residents there. It’s a neighborhood near the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that is “surrounded by pollution” from trains, trucks and industry.

“We support the rail, but we support the rail if they are doing everything they can to mitigate their emissions,” Andasan said.

Some activists would like to see California go further, for example, by limiting locomotive idling to 15 minutes. They are also concerned that the increased demand for online shopping is causing more rail traffic that overwhelms communities.

But some say it’s too early to implement locomotive standards. Wayne Winegarden, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, said the rule would be costly for rail companies and that increased costs will mean higher prices for many goods moved by rail.

The Association of American Railroads said in a statement that “there is no clear path to zero-emission locomotives.”

“Demanding such an outcome ignores the complexity and interconnected nature of rail operations and the reality of where zero-emission locomotive technology and supporting infrastructure lie,” the group wrote.

Freight railways are an efficient means of transporting some 1.6 billion tons of goods across the country over nearly 140,000 miles, much cleaner than if those goods were transported by truck, he said.

Kristen South, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific, said in a statement that the rail company wants regulators to continue to work with them to find a more “balanced” solution that is not too ambitious for current technology and infrastructure.

Union Pacific is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in part by spending $1 billion to retrofit locomotives and test battery-electric powered engines, South wrote.

California would have to get clearance from the US Environmental Protection Agency to go ahead with the rule, which would be more stringent than the federal standards. Other states may sign on to try to adopt California’s rule if it gets the go-ahead from the Biden administration.

The EPA recently approved California rules intended to reduce emissions from heavy trucks. The rules will require zero-emission trucks, depending on the type, to account for between 40% and 75% of sales by 2035.

Heidi Swillinger lives in a mobile home park in San Pablo, a small city in the San Francisco Bay Area, along the BNSF Railroad. She estimates that her house is only 20 feet from the tracks. She said it’s not uncommon for diesel fumes to fill her home, resulting in a “thick, acrid, dirty smell.”

“Nobody wants to live next to a railroad,” Swillinger said. “You move next to a railway because you have no other options.”


Sophie Austin is a staff member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on covert issues. Follow Austin on Twitter: @sophieadanna

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