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California passes 1st-in-nation emission rules for trains

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Posted at 1:50 PM, Apr 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-27 16:50:12-04

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The California Air Resources Board approved Thursday a first-in-the-nation, ambitious rule limiting rail pollution.

The goal is to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions from locomotives. The standards would also reduce a group of chemicals that contribute to the formation of smog. They could improve air quality for people living near railyards and ports.

The standards would need approval from the Biden administration to move forward. They follow rules approved by the Environmental Protection Agency to cut emissions from heavy trucks. The locomotive rule is part of the state’s plan to establish itself as a global leader in the fight against climate change.

“It is time to kickstart the next step of transformation with trains in this regulation,” said Davina Hurt, a board member.

Locomotives pull rail cars filled with food, lumber, oil, and other products through railyards 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 pollution that is harmful to people who live nearby, as well as greenhouse gases.

The rule will ban 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. It would also ban locomotives in the state from idling longer than 30 minutes if they are equipped with an automatic shutoff.

Other states can sign on to try to adopt the California rule if it gets the OK from the Biden administration.

The rule is 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,” Yasmine Agelidis, a lawyer with environmental nonprofit Earthjustice said before the agency vote.

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 release 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.

It’s important to tackle emissions from a sector that often burdens low-income residents and communities of color, and that has plans to expand passenger rail, said Air Resources Board Chair Liane M. Randolph.

Rail companies can participate in incentive programs run by the state to ease the cost of transitioning to zero-emissions locomotives, the agency said.

California has already set out to make big emissions cuts in other areas. The state approved a transition to zero-emissions cars and a roadmap to achieve carbon neutrality, meaning it would remove as many carbon emissions as it releases, by 2045.

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.

Residents shared stories Thursday of children who live near railways having to share inhalers to ease asthma symptoms and families taking extreme measures to rid their homes of diesel fumes.

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 (225,308 kilometers), 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.

“We need the strongest, most protective in-use locomotive regulation because we know these CARB rulings have an impact not only in California but across the U.S.,” said Cecilia Garibay, a project coordinator with the 50-member Moving Forward Network based at Occidental College.

The EPA recently approved California rules requiring 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 (6 meters) 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.”

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Sophie Austin is a corps member for 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 undercovered issues.