SF Chronicle: California can require railroads to eliminate pollution, U.S. EPA decides

By Bob Egelko

California has won federal approval to enact a first-in-the-nation rule requiring railroads in the state to reduce, and eventually eliminate, harmful air pollution from their locomotives. The railroad industry is already challenging the proposed rule in court.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allowed the state on Wednesday to adopt regulations approved by the California Air Resources Board in April that will require railroads entering the state to replace their most polluting diesels with cleaner models.

Zero-emissions locomotives will be required for all passenger and industrial engines built after 2030 and for all freight-line locomotives after 2035. Any polluting locomotive 23 years old or older will not be allowed in the state after 2030.

The rule would also allow locomotives to run their engines on idle for no more than 30 minutes at a time. Train operators must open spending accounts by next July and make deposits every year to buy or lease cleaner diesel trains and buy zero-emissions infrastructure.

“This common-sense update will allow California to stay a leader in protecting people from the harmful health impacts of diesel pollution,” said Katherine Garcia, a transportation officer at the Sierra Club. “We thank the EPA for righting a wrong and taking this crucial step toward protecting vulnerable communities near rail lines.”

The Air Resources Board has predicted that the emissions limits would prevent 3,200 premature deaths and save $32 billion in health costs.

Because of the EPA’s previous restrictions, the state board has been limited over the past 25 years to negotiating voluntary emissions agreements with Union Pacific and BNSF Railway. The board says those two lines produce 95% of all locomotive emissions statewide.

“Locomotive emissions disproportionately pollute communities near rail yards, causing significant and unjust public health and air quality issues,” said Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif. “While this is an important step, I will keep pressing the EPA to follow California’s lead and address pollution from locomotives across the country.”

But railroad companies say the restrictions will harm interstate transportation more than they will help the public.

“Given the importance of the interstate nature of rail transportation (which operates by linking intrastate and interstate networks), Congress has repeatedly directed that railroads are to be regulated solely at the federal level,” the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association argued in a suit filed in June in federal court in Sacramento.

Federal pollution-control law, they contended, “provides exclusive authority to the federal government to set emission standards for new locomotives, expressly precluding state and local regulators from adopting or attempting to enforce such standards or other requirements.” The suit, which seeks to halt the regulations, is pending before U.S. District Judge John Mendez.

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