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An idling threat

(The following article was posted on the Sacramento Bee website on April 10.)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Imagine 10,000 big rigs burning diesel at freeway speeds near your home every day, their exhaust stacks spewing carbon particles so fine they can lodge deep in the lungs.

Multiply the concentration of particle pollution ninefold, recent state data show, and you're breathing the air just downwind of the Roseville railyard - an area packed with homes, with more on the way.

In the first analysis of its kind, the California Air Resources Board, in cooperation with Union Pacific Railroad, quantified the toxic particles of diesel exhaust from the locomotives that chug and idle around the clock in the 52-track J.R. Davis Yard, the railroad's busiest hub west of the Rocky Mountains.

The air board calculated that yard operations emitted a total of 25 tons of the sooty pollution in 2000. In the five years since, traffic in the yard has increased further, with up to 70 cargo trains a day now converging on this six-mile-long strip in the heart of Roseville.

The calculation confirmed the train yard to be the single largest generator of diesel exhaust in the six-county Sacramento region, said Larry Greene, executive officer of the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District.

The study's most surprising find, however, was not the volume of locomotive soot but the reach of its plume, and the number of people potentially breathing the particles, which scientists have linked to increased cancer risk.

The air board's computer analysis showed an aerosol of ultra-fine soot particles extending about 100 square miles - encompassing most of Roseville, all of Citrus Heights and all of Antelope - and affecting an estimated 165,000 residents.

"That was the eye opener," said Tom Christofk, Placer County's air pollution control officer. "It's a big footprint."

For Union Pacific, the state findings helped pinpoint how it could change its railyard operations to get the most emission reductions for the money, said spokeswoman Katheryn Blackwell.

"That's not something we could have thought of before the study," Blackwell said.

Local regulators say they see a welcome change in Union Pacific.

For years, Christofk said, the railroad generally ignored the air district's requests to cut down on locomotive idling, which can go on for days. Once the state air board agreed to do the study, he said, "the company became a little more receptive to us."

UP begins to crack down
Not long after the Roseville Rail Yard Study began, Union Pacific installed controls on 21 locomotives assigned to the yard to reduce unnecessary idling and moved locomotive testing farther away from homes.

And after the results were made public last October, Union Pacific made a pact with the Placer County air district to cut the diesel exhaust at least 10 percent by 2008. Though the agreement is not legally binding, railroad officials said it behooves the company to stick to the deal.

"We are a huge employer in the county. We've got too much of a presence there," said Lanny Schmid, environmental operations director at Union Pacific headquarters in Omaha, Neb.

The company, which modernized and expanded the Roseville yard after its 1996 merger with Southern Pacific Lines, has a $6 million monthly payroll of 1,200 employees at the yard.

Railroading in Roseville runs five generations deep. The car-men and engineers of years past still gather around banquet tables for a monthly breakfast at the Pacific Street Café, just opposite the tracks. Names of neighborhood schools are inscribed on cabs of locomotives assigned to the yard.

When the state sought to inventory the yard's locomotive emissions, Schmid said, "We worked with them every step of the way."

Air board engineers quantified the pollution, then used a computer model to predict where the soot would disperse and in what concentrations.

Smog officials thought the particles would dissipate to negligible levels within a few hundred yards downwind, much as studies of Los Angeles area freeways had shown.

The computer analysis, however, showed significant concentrations of toxic particles extending up to eight miles northwest of the yard.

Though the federal Environmental Protection Agency regulates locomotives as "mobile sources" of pollution, Roseville's herd of iron horses acts more like a factory, the study showed. And no factory today would be allowed to spew anywhere near the amount of soot wafting off the railyard, local regulators said.

The congregation of so many idling and slow-moving locomotives potentially creates a toxic hot spot for neighboring residents, much like living downwind from a waste incinerator, regulators said.

"You don't have the turbulence and air mixing to dilute the exhaust as you would on a freeway," said Daniel Donohoue, the state official who supervised the air board study.

About 100 locomotives occupy the 780-acre yard at any given time. About one quarter are attached to trains passing through en route to Portland, Reno or Sacramento. Others stop to switch tracks, reassemble cars or crews, refuel or undergo inspection, repair or testing.

Several other locomotives known as "helpers" and "switchers" uncouple, sort, switch and recouple freight cars. A typical helper, the four-axle GP3-X model, emits 25 to 75 times more soot than a heavy-duty truck, state emissions data show.

Unlike a freeway, train yards have no rush hours. Emission levels stay fairly constant, the study found.

Also, the exhaust venting from the 1,200-to 4,400-horsepower locomotives runs hotter than anything spewed from a highway. The hotter the exhaust, the higher it rises and the larger the dispersal area, Donohoue said.

Residents' cancer risk rises
The railyard study arose from the air board's mandate to clean up an array of diesel-fueled engines statewide. In 1998, the board declared the particles in diesel exhaust - mainly specks of soot - a "toxic air contaminant" because of their potential to cause cancer and premature heart-and lung-related deaths in adults.

Board officials knew intuitively that railyards are huge sources of this pollution, but they did not know how big or how best to control them. They launched an extensive study to find out, centered on the Roseville yard operations at the request of Placer County's Christofk.

The locomotive soot elevates the cancer risk for the thousands of residents within the plume, the study said. The degree of added risk varies widely, depending mainly on length of residency and proximity to the yard. To be highly protective, the estimates assume an unlikely lifetime of exposure: breathing the same air for 70 years.

Expressed as chances in 1 million, the values denote potential - not actual - increased cancer risks to exposed individuals, the study said. The numbers have meaning only in comparison to other sources of cancer risk.

For example, living within 300 feet of Interstate 80 in Roseville - a stretch traveled by an average 10,000 big trucks a day - increases the cancer risk 50 to 100 chances in a million, according to the study.

By comparison, living within 300 feet of the yard's locomotive service and repair center boosts the cancer risk an average 950 chances in a million, the state analysis shows.

Such an increase is relatively small compared with the overall cancer incidence of 200,000 to 250,000 per million in the United States.

But public health officials view it differently: If efforts aren't made to reduce the risk from a railyard and other sources of cancer-causing pollutants, then the overall odds will climb above the current one in every four or five persons.

Cleanup will reduce smog
Beyond public health, the Sacramento region has a strong economic incentive to bring down the railyard pollution.

Cleaning up locomotive pollution reduces not only the hazardous particles but also nitrogen oxides, or NOx, the smog-forming gas that leaves metropolitan Sacramento chronically in violation of national clean-air standards. The region must comply by 2013 or risk more burdensome smog restrictions on businesses and the loss of federal highway money.

Locomotives annually produce more than 4,700 tons or 8 percent of the total NOx emissions in the six-county region, an area so smoggy that local air districts offer trucking companies up to $13,600 for every ton of the gas they reduce voluntarily.

"This is why I'm so interested in getting locomotives to do their fair share," Christofk said.

It may seem odd that regulators only recently began to examine emissions from such a conspicuous source, a major train hub now in its 100th year of operation.

That's because trains are among the last engines of commerce to be touched by the 35-year-old U.S. Clean Air Act. Virtually everything else with an exhaust vent or pipe has been modified for the sake of healthier air, while locomotives, marine vessels and airplanes keep writing brown signatures in the sky.

"As we cleaned up other sources, these mobile concentrations of trains, planes and ships keep sticking their heads up higher and higher above the playing field as a target," said Greene, the Sacramento air district chief.

Most locomotive switchers in the Roseville yard were built between 1972 and 1982, according to Union Pacific's inventory. The EPA didn't require cleaner-burning locomotives until 1998.

Some improvement will come next year with the introduction of federally required low-sulfur diesel fuel for locomotives.

Federal law also requires cleaner-burning engines in new and remanufactured locomotives. But it will take years to see much impact from those changes. Railroads don't replace locomotives as often as people do cars. These $2 million behemoths last 30 to 40 years.

Other railyards targeted
Union Pacific plans to accelerate cleanup beyond what federal laws require, with the help of public subsidies. Among other remedies, the company is considering an air district proposal to pipe exhaust from locomotives idling at the fueling and repair stations to a "scrubber" before its release.

The Placer County air district has received a state grant to set up air samplers in and around the yard this summer to verify and benchmark pollution levels so they can measure progress in abating the exhaust.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are pushing for pollution controls on railyards statewide.

One bill would require railroads in the Los Angeles area to contribute to a public fund used to subsidize purchase of cleaner diesel engines. Another by Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, would have the industry fund the monitoring of locomotive exhaust to identify gross polluters in need of repair.

Don Martin doesn't need an air monitor to know he's at ground zero for locomotive soot. The retired air conditioning serviceman lives in the zone of maximum exposure and increased cancer risk, according to the study.

"I'm not real fond of trains," Martin, 57, said over the rumble of locomotives directly across the street from his home. "They'll sit there days and days and days idling."

Last July, the Roseville City Council approved a plan to build 48 Victorian-style homes right next door to Martin.

Council members see the Church Street Station project as a model of affordable, attractive housing that would brighten the city's core rather than add to suburban sprawl. Union Pacific objected.

"Locating such housing immediately adjacent to one of the largest concentrations of railroad activities in the western United States ... is not the solution to the area's housing needs," said Wayne Horuchi, a spokesman for the railroad.

The City Council initially rejected the proposal, heeding smog officials' concerns about placing residents so close to the yard. The council later reversed itself after a city environmental consultant concluded the health threat is comparable to living near a medium-volume freeway such as I-80.

The state study, with its more dire findings, was released a few months after the vote.

Randy Tachias, 45, said 25 years of living next to locomotive fueling racks and working in the yard has deadened his smell of diesel. He said families who would occupy the planned Church Street Station subdivision might not be so fortunate.

"I hope they know what they're getting into."

Monday, April 11, 2005

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