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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Haze Over Trade

Air Date: Week of

In the most recent in our series, "The Haze Over Trade," residents and regulators in southern California, frustrated over increasing trade related air pollution focus their most recent protests on railroad emissions. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.


GELLERMAN: In just seven years, the number of cargo containers shipped into southern California has doubled and it’s predicted to quadruple over the next twenty years. It means more pollution around ports from the ships, trucks and trains that haul the freight . At the same time, new research shows that pollution from diesel engines is taking a toll on the health of residents of southern California. Heart disease, cancer and respiratory problems are on the rise, especially in children whose lungs are failing to fully develop.

Armed with this research, and frustrated by the lack of federal and state efforts to curb this growing source of pollution, some Southern Californians are demanding stricter controls, most recently on rail traffic. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet has the latest in our occasional series, "The Haze Over Trade."

LOBET: One evening recently, Rob Bradley, an operations manager for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, found himself making the case for a new railyard that would mean about one million truck trips per year on the 710 freeway, LA's most diesel-laden.

BRADLEY: Many may not realize that one double-stacked train can handle the equivalent of 250-280 trucks.

LOBET: No one disputes trains are the cleanest way to transport heavy cargo, and Bradley promised this would be no smoke-choked railyard. It would use electric cranes and natural gas or hybrid switch locomotives.

BRADLEY: BNSF is committed to making this the greenest facility in the country. The facility will set a new standard of environmental stewardship in southern California.

LOBET: Bradley made the pitch in the city of Long Beach where many people rely on international trade for work.

But air emissions from the ports have increased sixty percent since 2001 and an air toxic study six years ago informed residents their cancer risk is elevated. Communities have been organizing around the study ever since. City Council member Tonia Reyes Uranga carried the inhaler she uses for her asthma up to the microphone.

REYES URANGA: I'm really outraged that families of limited means are spending more on medical bills and medicines than on books and milk. My children, who were born on the West Side, suffer from asthma and respiratory illness. Everyone in our family now has one of these, except my husband. We now live in a census tract that is designated as a cluster area for throat and mouth cancer. How do I care for my family's welfare?

LOBET: Ophelia Hilliard had a pointed question.

HILLIARD: I would like to know, do they have board-certified pulmonologists? Pediatric pulmonologists who have backed up their studies? Or is this just pie in the sky?

LOBET: The new rail facility is only one place railroads are finding resistance now in southern California. In Sacramento, at the Air Resources Board, regulators thought they were making real progress when they quietly struck a deal with two of the nation's major railroads to remove 20 percent of the small particles in the air over rail yards. Almost immediately, they found themselves on the defensive.

[CROWD CHANTING, “We can’t breathe! Diesel kills!”]

LOBET: In the deal, the railroads agreed to turn off their heavy diesel engines when parked, rather than letting them idle for hours or even days. They promised to install automatic shut-offs on engines that stay in California and to measure air pollution at sixteen of the largest railyards. The Air Board's Mike Scheibel acknowledged to a packed room in Los Angeles that there are, quote, “tremendous health impacts because of railyard and port emissions.”

SCHEIBEL: We are pursuing as vigorously as we can regulatory and other mitigation approaches. We are doing this statewide.

LOBET: But Scheibel stressed states have very little authority to force interstate trains to do anything they don't want to.

SCHEIBEL: Federal law very significantly restricts our ability to regulate railroad emissions and operations. Therefore, we thought a mutual agreement between the state and the railroads was the most effective way to overcome these limitations.

LOBET: But in southern California, the voluntary agreement was seen as a backroom deal, cut to circumvent the stronger demands of the state’s most polluted region.

Meetings there drew more than 300 people. Resident Penny Newman had been working for two years with the same Sacramento regulators on other, stronger measures to address rail exhaust. She was incredulous that a deal was signed that short-circuited that effort.

NEWMAN: You sat there straight-faced. You took tours of our communities and, in many instances, you went into our homes. And all the while, you were using our bills as leverage in order to get those guys to the table and come up with this Mickey Mouse deal. You betrayed us.

LOBET: The anger isn’t only about process. Southern California regulators say they could have gotten a stronger agreement with the railroads. They scoff at a twenty percent reduction in particles and accuse state air officials of buckling. Some see the hand of the Schwarzenegger administration in the cooperative approach with a major industry. However it happened, regulators and railroad officials these days are hearing more from young people like Myra Gonzales

GONZALES: We do live in these communities. We breathe this air every day. Every day. When we go to school, we see these railroads.

LOBET: The high school student faced the much older members of the Air Resources Board and, by proxy, railroad officials.

GONZALES: You’re basically saying, ‘We don’t care. We don’t hear you.’ But we want our voice, and I know you hear it. Maybe it’s just time to listen.


LOBET: One thing shipping companies could do is put more clean running train engines into service sooner. That would make for cleaner air not just in California but everywhere the trains run. Or some of the trade traffic could shift away from southern California to Seattle or San Francisco: somewhere where the clamor over air pollution isn’t as loud. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.



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