Every day, locomotives pull rail cars filled with food, lumber, oil and other products through railyards near neighborhoods in Oakland, Commerce, San Bernadino and other California cities.
They run on diesel, a more powerful fuel than gasoline, and burning all that diesel produces pollution that is harmful for people who live nearby, as well as greenhouse gases. California’s Air Resources Board is trying to change that.
The agency votes Thursday on a rule that would ban the use of locomotive engines more than 23 years old by 2030 and increase the use of zero-emissions technology to transport freight from ports and throughout railyards. The rule would also ban locomotives in the state from idling longer than 30 minutes if they are equipped with an automatic shutoff.
The rule would be the most ambitious of its kind in the country.
“It’s going to be groundbreaking, and it’s going to address the diesel crisis that’s been poisoning communities near railyards for literal decades,” said Yasmine Agelidis, a lawyer with environmental nonprofit Earthjustice.
Diesel exhaust is a health hazard. According to California regulators, diesel emissions are responsible for some 70% of Californians’ cancer risk from toxic air pollution. The rule would curb emissions on a class of engines that annually release more than 640 tons of tiny pollutants that can enter 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 drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions from locomotives, by an amount akin to removing all heavy-duty trucks from the state by 2030.
Los Angeles skyline is seen above the Union Pacific LATC Intermodal Terminal on April 25, 2023, in Los Angeles. California’s Air Resources Board is set to vote on a proposed rule to cut greenhouse gas emissions from diesel-powered locomotives. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
For activists and residents who’ve lived in areas affected by heavy rail pollution, the fight for cleaner trains is 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 rail, but we support rail if they’re doing all their best to mitigate their emissions,” Andasan said.
Some activists would like California to go further, for example to limit locomotive idling to 15 minutes. They are also concerned that increased demand from online shopping is causing more rail traffic that burdens communities.
But some say it’s too soon to implement the locomotive standards. Wayne Winegarden, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, said the rule would be expensive for rail companies, and increased costs will mean higher prices for many goods that move by rail.
The Association of American Railroads said in a statement “there is no clear path to zero emissions locomotives.”
“Mandating that result ignores the complexity and interconnected nature of railroad operations and the reality of where zero emission locomotive technology and the supporting infrastructure stand,” the group wrote.
Freight railways are an efficient means to transport the roughly 1.6 billion tons of goods nationwide across nearly 140,000 miles, much cleaner than if those goods were trucked, it said.
Kristen South, a spokesperson for Union Pacific, said in a statement the rail company wants regulators to continue to work with them to come up with a more “balanced” solution that is not too ambitious for the current technology and infrastructure.
Union Pacific is working to cut greenhouse gas emissions in part by spending $1 billion to modernize locomotives and testing out engines powered by electric batteries, South wrote.
California would have to get authorization from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move forward with the rule, which would be stricter than federal standards. Other states can sign on to try to adopt the California rule if it gets the OK from the Biden administration.
The EPA recently approved California rules aimed at reducing emissions from heavy trucks. The rules will require zero-emission trucks, depending on the type, to make up 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 Railway. She estimates that her home is just 20 feet from the tracks. She said it’s not uncommon for diesel fumes to fill her house, resulting in a “thick, acrid, dirty smell.”
“Nobody wants to live next to a railroad track,” Swillinger said. “You move next to a railroad track because you don’t have other options.”