Health and Air Pollution in Commerce

To her children, Madeline Clarke was the “crazy mom” who watched the trains parked behind her Commerce home and produced piles of notes on how long each would stay there.

Trains sidled up behind her home at all hours of the day and night, all the while shaking the foundations of the houses up and down the street. Then the trains, still running their engines and continuing to rumble and send out plumes of smoke, would wait.

Clarke said the trains would idle on the track behind her home for up to 24 hours. “I’d be cooking in the kitchen … and a train would come and I’d notice it. I’d hear it and I’d look. I see the number and write it down. And I write the time down. And then I started noticing that they were there hours and hours and hours,” she says.

This was no ordinary, harmless waiting. When Clarke says her home is next to the Union Pacific railyard in Commerce, she means the tracks are right up against her back wall. Smoke from the trains would leave a film of soot that covered her windows.

But the closeness of the trains also meant she could shoot stern glances at railyard employees just as easily as she could talk to her next-door neighbors over the side wall. “I’d go out there and stand there and shame [the railyard workers] to get out of there, you know. And the guys will say ‘I’ll be out of here as soon as they give me permission…’ They all know better than to park there for that long,” Clarke says.

Clarke’s children no longer call her crazy. A number of health studies have now confirmed what she always felt: train emissions are unhealthy. Studies now show that exposure to the fine powdery substance known as diesel soot, blown into the air by locomotives and other diesel-powered vehicles, can lead to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

People who live in the Bandini and Ayers-Leonis neighborhoods, near the railyards in Commerce, are 40 to 70 percent more likely to develop cancer than people living elsewhere in Los Angeles, according to a 2007 study by the state air resources board. In other words, the closer you live to the rail yard, the higher the risk, according to Karen Caesar, an information officer with the California Air Resource Board, (CARB), referencing the Commerce (Four Rail Yards) report.

These alarming statistics and health studies are well known in Commerce. “This is considered cancer city,” says Bandini area resident Charlie Miranda, 41, not only because of the railyards, but also because of the I-710 and I-5 freeways that criss-cross their neighborhoods and the high volume of diesel trucks that run through their industry-heavy city.

The Bandini neighorhood where Clarke and Miranda live is adjacent to one of the biggest railyards in the state. In total, the four Commerce railyards encompass 530 acres in the city.

New health studies, public outrage over a 2003 train derailment, and a voluntary agreement between the railroad companies and the state Air Resource Board are thought to have pushed the railroad companies into updating locomotive technology and purchasing environmentally-friendly trains.

The railroad companies, however, say these changes were already in the works, and for years they’ve been steadily addressing the health effects of their activity and conscientiously following through on plans to reduce emissions. In 1998 they started reducing the emission of NOx, a poisonous chemical produced through the combustion of diesel engines. They then moved on to tackle emissions of diesel particulate matter in 2005, under a voluntary agreement with the state. And in early 2008 they began talking to the state about exploring further ways of “greening” their activity.

But Commerce residents and activists say they were not included as equal players in the process. In 2005, BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad Co. entered into a “Memorandum of Understanding” with CARB. It was drawn up without the input of the community, activists said.

When it was completed, the plan was sprung on them in a news release from the state. California Air Resources Board officials say this was because in 2005 it was not policy to invite the public into these discussions. What seemed like policy to the state seemed to the public like “secret meetings.”

The agreement requires the railyards to limit train idling, ensure their trains meet smoke inspection standards, use cleaner diesel fuel, and conduct health risk assessments. The changes have since reduced railyard diesel PM emissions by 20 percent, according to Caeser.

As part of the mitigation plan, the state agency began taking a closer look at health risks posed by railyard pollution. CARB’s health risk assessments on 18 major railyards in California, mostly completed in 2007 and 2008, turned up results that startled even agency officials, according to Angelo Logan, executive director of East Yard Community for Environmental Justice.

“I don’t think [officials at CARB] expected it to be that dramatic,” he says.

The assessment revealed that the four BNSF railyards in Commerce emitted 40 tons of toxic air contaminants a year in 2005, while the Union Pacific railyard in Commerce emitted 11 tons. Even though the amount of emissions in Commerce is not the highest in the region, it has a high enough concentration of residents living in close proximity to the railyards to cause alarm. The CARB’s assessment indicates that statewide, railyard pollution puts 2.8 million residents in California at greater risk of cancer, due to their large foot print. But according to Caeser, “Risks drop off significantly the further you get from the yard.”

Community groups say the mitigation plan is useless because it’s voluntary and doesn’t take into account concerns raised by the community.

“It’s not that the railyards have not been following regulations, but that there hasn’t been any regulations that are adequate for protecting the public’s health, especially if you have residents that live close to the railyards,” Logan says.

Dissatisfied with the 2005 agreement, southern California environmental groups worked with their local, regional air quality agency to introduce stronger regulations. When the railroad companies challenged the adoption of these regulations in court, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the environmental groups were told by the judge that only the state, or CARB, has the authority to regulate the railroads. Railroads are federal entities and regulating them would interfere with interstate commerce, the judge said.

Clarke, who by that time had joined East Yard, had given testimony for the AQMD trial. During an East Yard meeting held after the judge’s decision, Clarke proposed an idea.

“I said we should sue them. Let’s sue our own Air Resources Board because they’re not defending us. They’re not looking out for our good. They’re looking out for the railroad,” she told EGP.

East Yard did just that. They took CARB and the two main railroads in California, Union Pacific and BNSF, to court in December 2007 for not doing enough to reduce emissions. Clarke, who was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, reasoned that the state had not placed taxpayers on equal footing with the railroad companies.

“They represent us. They don’t represent the railroads. They are our officials and they have to do for us,” Clarke says.

A federal charter always seemed to give the railroad companies an upper hand in most negotiations. “They come to the table, but… as soon as they don’t like it anymore, they just walk away, pretty much hiding behind the power of their federal charter. It’s that whole federal issue, so that’s a tough thing, to keep them on the table,” says Jason Stinnet, Clarke’s son who also happens to be a public information officer for the city of Commerce.

The lawsuit was just one way East Yard tried to bring the state and the railyards to the table again. They teamed up with several other environmental groups in Oakland, Wilmington, Riverside, and San Bernardino and filed a petition in April 2008 requesting that CARB adopt stronger regulation on railyard emissions. Their petition was denied three months later. CARB reasoned that they were uncertain about whether they had the authority to regulate the railroads, which have traditionally been difficult to regulate because they are under federal jurisdiction. CARB also expressed uncertainty about how effective the measures proposed in the petition would be in reducing emissions.

The environmental groups filed an appeal in September 2008 to have CARB reconsider. This time CARB began studying the technical feasibility of the 37 different measures for reducing railyard emissions. They completed the study in December 2008.

On January 20, 2009, CARB’s executive officer James Goldstene granted the environmental groups most of the terms of their petition. A day later, East Yard’s lawsuit against CARB and the railroad companies was dismissed without prejudice.

East Yard’s attorney Gideon Kracov credits the final result to a combination of the environmental groups’ lobbying, petitioning, and legal pressure. The environmental groups are now ready to work with the state on strengthening regulation. “We agreed to dismiss the case in exchange for these positive developments,” Kracov says.

“As the case got moving we were able to settle… we accomplished our mission… we would rather work collaboratively with the air resources board on this new project,” he said.

Kirk Marckwald, who represents the Railyard association, disagrees with East Yard’s view on the impact of their petition and lawsuit. He says the railroad companies were already working on a new plan as part of the requirements of their voluntary agreement with the state. “I think the genesis of the plan is the air resources oversight trying to find ways to reduce emissions. I think it’s independent of any petition or any lawsuit,” he says.

“What [CARB] granted was what we are going to do,” Marckwald maintains. And the decision did not decide anything about how the ideas from the technical document would be implemented. Marckwald says the state will first analyze which agencies have the authority to regulate locomotives and what kind of funding sources are available.

At the moment, state board representatives say they don’t consider themselves to have authority over railroad companies.

“The railroads have been partners in this process, and while they may not embrace every suggestion that is offered, they have shown themselves to be committed to doing what is economically and technologically feasible. We do not have the authority to force them to comply so we appreciate that they have volunteered their efforts on this issue and have already devoted extensive resources in this area,” says CARB’s Ceaser,

Still, East Yard has hailed the state board’s decision to grant their petition as unprecedented. They say CARB has agreed to look into introducing a set of regulations meant to cut railyard emissions by up to 45 percent in the next seven years. The agency has asked its staff to put together a proposal that will be presented at a board meeting in June.

This plan would be the most comprehensive air quality plan to address railyard pollution in the state, according to Logan. Ten out of the eleven measures suggested by the environmental groups will be included with the proposal. They include strategies for enforcing the railyards’ compliance with existing state and federal requirements and will introduce new requirements for upgrading train technology and equipment to meet more rigorous standards.

Logan also says that newer, more sympathetic CARB leadership and the revelation of the health risks were instrumental in producing the outcome. He says there may still be challenges from the railyards as well as other interests invested in the goods movements industry, but for now they are looking forward to collaborating with both the state and the railroads on the new plan.

“We will just be looking at and illustrating the facts and science, showing the [railroad companies] that these strategies are feasible and also doable, and there will be some real advantages in terms of improving public health,” he says.

The railroad companies are in agreement. “I think the railroads welcome any stakeholder who wants to be involved in a dialogue of what is technically feasible, cost effective and can happen for locomotives in and around railyards,” Marckwald says.

Despite recent developments, Clarke wavers between staying optimistic and keeping her expectations low. Partly, she thinks the community has not taken a strong enough stand for themselves. “I feel we’re not radical enough. We’re too… how would you say, passive. … We need lawmakers to change this thing” she says.

The voice of the community has been exactly what’s missing from the whole process, she says.

The handling of the 2005 agreement is symbolic of this. “We objected to the MOU because we said it didn’t include the community. They didn’t come to us. They just made the proposal and they were going to shove it down our throats and we protested it,” she says.

The community needs to stay on the railroad companies’ and the state’s case. “As long as we keep bothering, … picking at them, then eventually, maybe one day they’ll pay attention,” she says.

The fences behind the homes in Commerce railyard neighborhoods were replaced by a brick sound wall in recent years, which Clarke says is well-intentioned but has had the negative affect of blocking railyard activity from the eyes of the community.

She remembers when the brick walls were just chain-linked fences. “With all the idling that they were doing, I started getting up on the ladder [to see] she says. “Before we didn’t have that brick wall there, we had just a regular iron chain link fence back there, we could see what was going on. Then came that big brick wall there and we didn’t pay attention,” she says.

But if nothing else, the railroad companies and the air resources board know she’s watching them.

“They know me, they know me,” she says.