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California Unanimously Approves Crackdown on Train Emissions

The legislative package is the nation’s first-of-its-kind and will eventually require train companies to swap out their dirtiest locomotives for zero-emission models. It will also limit train idling to no more than 30 minutes.

(TNS) — When it reached 114 degrees last summer, Sacramento, Calif., resident Judith Johnson struggled to stay cool. She lives 50 yards from railroad tracks where freight trains often idle for several days straight, she said. Opening the windows would increase the noise and let in the fumes; turning on the air conditioner would still suck in foul air.

The accumulating diesel fumes have triggered migraines and a chronic sore throat, and loud booms and hisses from the engines have also disrupted her sleep, Johnson said.

"It's one thing if they stopped for an hour, that doesn't bother me," Johnson said. When she moved into her home in 2016, "I expected the trains to run, but I just didn't expect them to come and camp out for days on end."

Soon, Johnson and other California residents who live near railroad tracks will get some relief. State regulators unanimously voted Thursday on a first-in-the-nation package of proposed regulations requiring train companies that operate in the state to swap out their dirtiest locomotives to the cleanest diesel models and eventually to zero-emission models.

The new regulations from the California Air Resources Board also limit locomotive idling to no more than 30 minutes — a priority for Johnson and other California residents who've weighed in to public comment.

"They're the most aggressive (regulations) of their kind," said UC Berkeley environmental law Professor Ethan Elkind. "There are previous (federal) regulations on locomotive emissions, but these will be the first to really push for zero-emission locomotives."

It's a major win for community organizers and environmental justice organizations who have been pushing California regulators to address pollution from locomotives for decades, as low-income communities and communities of color living near railroad tracks and railyards suffer disproportionately from negative health impacts.

"With so much rage but also hope, we are here because we want to make sure that you all do right by our communities that have been impacted for decades," Jocelyn Del Rio, a resident of Bell Gardens ( Los Angeles County), said at Thursday's meeting.

Under the new regulations, zero-emissions models will be required for all switch, industrial and passenger locomotives built after 2030 and for all freight line locomotives built after 2035. Any non-zero emissions locomotive that is 23 years old or more will not be allowed to operate in the state past 2030.

The regulations also require train operators to open a spending account by July 2024 that they must deposit into every year to purchase or lease cleaner diesel trains and buy zero-emissions infrastructure. Operators that generate more pollutants are required to deposit more into the spending account, and the amount required to be deposited would also increase every year.

The railroad industry could sue over the regulations.

"Were the board to adopt these proposals, the inevitable result will be litigation and judicial decisions prohibiting the Board from proceeding," Association of American Railroads Senior Vice President Michael Rush said at a November California Air Resources Board meeting.

When asked by The Chronicle about plans to pursue legal action, an Association of American Railroads spokesperson defended locomotives as "indisputably the most environmentally responsible way to move goods overland."

"Ultimately, CARB's decision is entirely untenable and will not result in emissions reductions. Moreover, CARB lacks the legal authority to promulgate" the new regulations, the railroad association spokesperson wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

The railroad industry has long been shielded from state regulations on emissions as part of a provision in the federal Clean Air Act. But two weeks ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal that would give states more authority to regulate locomotives, after years of California asking the agency to set more stringent emissions standards.

Over the last 25 years, the California Air Resources Board has only been able to enact voluntary agreements with the two Class I railroad operators in California, Union Pacific and BNSF Railway. Class I railroads account for 95 percent of all locomotive emissions statewide, according to the Air Resources Board.

In a statement to The Chronicle, Union Pacific said the company is committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The company did not respond to questions regarding residents' concerns or plans for legal action.

"The technology and infrastructure does not exist to achieve CARB's zero emission goals. We strongly urge regulators to continue collaborating with us to find a balanced solution that provides Californians a vibrant, sustainable future," said Union Pacific spokesperson Kristen South.

BNSF Railway deferred to the Association of American Railroads when asked for comment.

Railroads make up a minuscule portion of California's overall greenhouse gas emissions — only 0.3 percent in 2020, according to California Air Resources Board data. Still, the Air Resources Board expects the proposed regulations to reduce statewide locomotive greenhouse gas emissions from 2023 to 2050 by 21 million metric tons — "roughly equivalent to removing all heavy-duty diesel trucks from California's roads for all of 2030," according to the regulatory agency.

More significantly, locomotives are "a disproportionate cause" of health-harming air pollution, Elkind of UC Berkeley said, as they release large amounts of pollutants such as smog-forming nitrogen oxides (NOx) and fine particles that increase the risk of cancer, asthma, cardiopulmonary illnesses and premature death. 90 percent of communities most impacted by air pollution in California cite locomotives as a concern, California Air Resources Board staff said at Thursday's meeting.

Many public speakers at Thursday's meetings traveled hours to Sacramento from the Inland Empire region to speak passionately in support of the regulations.

Many discussed the higher occurrences of asthma, cancer and other illnesses in their communities and urged the air board to consider even stricter idling requirements.

"We say environmental impact. Have you ever seen a child watch another child have an asthma attack? Have you ever had someone call you and tell you to go to school to pick up your child because they just couldn't run up the monkey bars?" Fontana resident Jennifer Cardenas said at Thursday's meeting.

In 2020, locomotives were responsible for 10 percent of NOx emissions from all mobile sources in California, according to the Air Resources Board. The new regulations will cut NOx emissions from trains by 86 percent and fine-particle emissions by 91 percent, agency staff said at Thursday's meeting.

The California Air Resources Board estimated that the regulations will eliminate approximately 3,200 premature deaths, 1,100 hospital admissions and 1,500 emergency room visits.

California Air Resources Board member Hector De La Torre said he understood the frustration of community members, as he grew up 100 feet from a railway.

"I want everyone to know that just because it's taken a long time doesn't mean we have not been working (on) this problem for a very long time. We have never lost our focus," De La Torre said.

For passenger rail trains that have already started moving toward cleaner fleets, the regulations are expected to be less burdensome, said Darren Kettle, CEO of Metrolink, a passenger rail service serving six counties in Southern California.

Metrolink is planning to abide by the regulations under an "alternative compliance plan," Kettle said. This off-ramp doesn't require companies to create a spending account or phase out diesel trains by 2030 as long as their alternative proposal reduces fine particles, NOx and greenhouse gas emissions by an equal or greater amount.

The alternative compliance plan works better for Metrolink, which upgraded 40 trains to the cleanest diesel model in 2017 and is still struggling to return to pre-pandemic ridership levels, Kettle said.

In the Bay Area, Caltrain is already close to adopting electric locomotives.

California has already passed regulations banning the sale of most new gas-powered cars by 2035 and the sale of gas-powered medium- and heavy-duty trucks by 2045.

(c)2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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