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Rail-yard pollution: Federal court rules against air quality board

RAILyard foto Bartletti BNSF
Air-quality watchdogs in Southern California can't impose limits on pollution from idling trains because that could interfere with interstate commerce -- a federal responsibility -- a U.S. appeals court ruled Wednesday.

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 in an attempt to curb cancer-causing air pollution. The district covers Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Diesel emissions from trains, trucks and ships are linked to 2,100 early deaths in the region each year, according to the California Air Resources Board. In recent weeks, local residents and community justice organizations have been protesting railroad pollution around the San Bernardino rail yard, judged by the state resources board to present the most acute health risk among California's 18 most polluted rail hubs.

SOCAL cancer Map The Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 expressly states that federal regulation preempts state and local laws when they unreasonably burden interstate commerce, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said in its ruling.

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

Melissa Lin Perrella of the Natural Resources Defense Council said local officials and environmental groups throughout Southern California are working on new regulations to reduce pollution by controlling the flow of freight from the Los Angeles and Long Beach 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.

Forty percent of the containerized cargo entering the United States flows through the two San Pedro Bay ports. Most of it is shipped through some of the region's poorest neighborhoods, many of them Latino and African American, on trucks and trains to other destinations.

-- Carol J. Williams

Photo: BNSF container trains parked at Pier 400, before leaving the Port of Long Beach to destinations across the U.S.  Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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The railroads use mostly Tier II locomotives to reduce emissions, use GenSet switching locomotives and are very strict on locomotives being shut down when not in use.

Not to mention that when these yards were designed and built - THEY WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE! The railroads do more to reduce emissions than to ANY OTHER MODE OF TRANSPORTATION! Both GE and EMD are working on Tier IV emissions compliant locomotives. What are YOU doing?!?

If this isn't bad enough, the two major railroads in California want to expand an existing intermodal yard near the Ports and build another.

LA should sue the railroads at common-law to recover the costs imposed by the federal government for failure to satisfy air quality standards.

The 9th Circuit affirms the district court's ruling based on the specific facts that the local SCAQMD rules are preempted by the federal railroad law ICCTA. However, the 9th Circuit also states that if the California Air Resources Board approved the rules and USEPA approved the rules, then the rules would be part of federal law and not preempted if harmonized with ICCTA. This is the principle that amicus East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice argued for in our brief in the case. The 9th Circuit therefore has given a roadmap to California and others on how to regulate the railroads' pollution and avoid preemption in the future. This is a positive aspect of the ruling.

Why mention race & ethnicity? It seems habitual and gratuitous. My (mostly white) neighborhood is under the brown cloud, too.


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