California establishes the nation’s first emissions rule for trains

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) — The California Air Resources Board on Thursday approved a nationwide first, ambitious rule to limit rail pollution.

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

The standards would need to be approved by the Biden administration to move forward. They follow Environmental Protection Agency-approved rules to reduce emissions from heavy-duty 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’s time to take the next step of transformation with trains in this regulation,” said Board Member Davina Hurt.

Locomotives pull wagons filled with food, lumber, oil and other products through railroad yards near neighborhoods in Oakland, Commerce, San Bernardino and other California cities.

They run on diesel, a more potent fuel than gasoline, and burning all diesel produces pollution harmful to people nearby, as well as greenhouse gases.

The rule will ban locomotive engines older than 23 years by 2030 and increase the use of zero-emission technology to move freight from ports and train stations. It would also ban locomotives in the state from idling for more than 30 minutes if they are equipped with an automatic shut-off.

Other states can sign up to try to adopt the California rule if they get the OK from the Biden administration.

The rule is the most ambitious of its kind in the country.

“It will be game-changing and address the diesel crisis that has been poisoning communities near railroad yards for literal decades,” Yasmine Agelidis, a lawyer for environmental nonprofit Earthjustice, said ahead of the agency’s vote.

Diesel exhaust fumes are hazardous to health. According to California regulators, diesel emissions are responsible for about 70% of Californians’ cancer risk from toxic air pollution. The rule would curb emissions from a class of engines that annually release more than 640 tons of tiny pollutants that can penetrate 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 dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from locomotives, by an amount equivalent to removing all heavy trucks from the state by 2030.

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

Railroad companies can participate in government incentive programs to reduce the cost of converting to zero-emission locomotives, the agency said.

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

For activists and residents who have lived in areas hit by heavy rail pollution, the fight for clean trains has been on for decades.

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

“We support the railways, but we support the railways when they do their best to reduce their emissions,” Andasan said.

Local residents on Thursday shared stories of children living near railroads who had to share inhalers to relieve asthma symptoms and families who took extreme measures to rid their homes of diesel fumes.

Some activists would like to see California go further, such as limiting locomotive idle times to 15 minutes. They also worry that increased demand from online shopping will lead to more rail travel, which will put a strain on communities.

However, some say it is too early 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 would mean higher prices for many goods transported by rail.

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

“Providing this outcome ignores the complexity and interconnectedness of railroad operations and the reality of where zero-emission locomotive technology and the supporting infrastructure stand,” the group wrote.

Freight rail is an efficient means of moving the roughly 1.6 billion tons of goods across the country nearly 140,000 miles (225,308 kilometers), much cleaner than if those goods were transported by truck, it said.

Kristen South, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific, said in a statement that the railroad would like regulators to continue working with them to find a “more balanced” solution that isn’t overly ambitious for the current technology and infrastructure.

Union Pacific is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in part by spending $1 billion modernizing locomotives and testing motors that run on electric batteries, South wrote.

“We need the strictest and most protective regulation for locomotives in service because we know these CARB decisions will have an impact not just in California but across the United States,” said Cecilia Garibay, project coordinator for the 50-member Moving Forward Network based at Occidental College.

The EPA recently passed California regulations that require zero-emission trucks to account for between 40% and 75% of sales by 2035, depending on the type.

Heidi Swillinger lives in a trailer park in San Pablo, a small town in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the BNSF Railway. She estimates that her home is only 6 meters from the tracks. She said it was not uncommon for diesel fumes to fill her home, resulting in a “thick, acrid, dirty smell”.

“No one wants to live next to a railroad line,” Swillinger said. “You move next to a railroad track because you have no other options.”


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 cover undercover topics. Follow Austin on Twitter: @sophieadanna

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