NRDC Threatens to Sue Railroads over Diesel Emissions as Hazardous Waste

Date: June 21, 2011

Source: Natural Resources Defense Council

An environmental group is threatening to sue two of the nation's largest rail companies under a novel legal theory that classifies diesel exhaust as hazardous waste. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sent letters to Union Pacific Corp. and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway contending that the rail yard operators are in violation of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act due to the high levels of particulate matter released by their diesel-based operations. The NRDC argues that minute particles in diesel air pollution, which include lead, cadmium, arsenic and other toxic elements, are solid waste. The letter goes on to say that NRDC will file a lawsuit within 90 days if measures are not taken to clean up hazardous diesel emissions in 16 California rail yards. If successful, such a suit could open the door for legal action against similar air pollution sources such as ports, airports or anywhere with a lot of diesel equipment, said David Pettit, a senior attorney with the council.

State and local air quality regulators have struggled to regulate train pollution. A federal appeals court last year struck down a lawsuit involving a local air regulator that wanted to reduce pollution from idling locomotives. The court determined the agency was overstepping its authority because only the federal government is authorized to regulate interstate commerce.

June 21, 2011

Groups Challenge California Rail Yards To Clean Up Their Act

  • Diesel Pollution from Facilities Harms Millions of People Each Year

California's two major rail yard operators are illegally disposing hazardous waste thereby increasing the risk of serious health problems such as chronic respiratory disease and cancer in neighboring communities, according to a 90-day notice letter sent today by the Natural Resources Defense Council, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. The letter contends that the rail yard operators are in violation of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act due to the high levels of particulate matter released by their diesel-based operations.

"People living near these rail yards are exposed to startling levels of pollution and carcinogens every day," said David Pettit, NRDC senior attorney. "Poisoning people should not be a cost of doing business in California."

The letter of intent is directed to Union Pacific Corporation (UP), Burlington Northern Santa Fe, LLC, and BNSF Railway Company (BNSF), the only two major railroads that haul freight in California. Much of the containerized freight that travels from Asia to the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland is transferred onto diesel trucks that transport the containers to local and regional rail yards for transfer onto trains powered by diesel locomotives and then shipped throughout the United States.

"Communities surrounding rail yards need relief now," said Angelo Logan, executive director for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. We have been patiently working with both regulator and the rail companies for years, with no resolve. Health protective technologies and fixes exist. It is time for the rail companies to be good neighbors and right the wrongs they have imposed on California communities."

Millions of Californians inhale toxic diesel particulate pollution generated annually by rail yards. California's Air Resources Board has struggled for years over how to regulate diesel pollution from railroads, and despite recent efforts by federal EPA, communities in close proximity to rail yards remain vulnerable to the serious health risks posed by these facilities. The health dangers of diesel particulate emissions are well-known. Increased incidence of cancer, asthma, and respiratory and cardiac conditions are attributed to inhaling diesel particulate matter. Communities residing even miles away from busy rail yards can face increased risk of cancer.

"Families at the fence line of the railyards and rail lines pay an exorbinent price in terms of their health and quality of life," said Penny Newman, Executive Director for CCAEJ. "While the railroads have outlined extra steps they are willing to take at proposed new facilities near the ports, they drag their feet at implementing these same technologies at railyards where health damage has been documented. Before they are allowed to expand their operations, UP and BNSF must take steps now to stop the harm they are doing to these families."

People living in communities close to the source of goods movement-related emissions, such as ports, rail yards and inter-modal transfer facilities are likely to suffer greater health impacts and these impacts will likely add to an existing health burden. Communities surrounding many goods movement-related facilities where there is an elevated exposure to air pollutants are often economically disadvantaged or ethnically or culturally diverse.

"To protect the health of our friends and families, we must ensure that rail yards like those owned by UP and BNSF are as clean as possible," said Melissa Lin Perrella, NRDC senior attorney. "The railway has a menu of pollution-control solutions at its fingertips. We need to ensure BNSF and UP are working to protect the health of those who live near their facilities."

Solutions to reduce diesel pollution include the use of locomotives, trucks, and equipment that meet the most stringent EPA emissions standards as well as the use of electric vehicles. Adopting idling control devices and prohibiting idling near residences will also reduce pollution exposure caused by locomotives. Fleet modernization programs can be adopted to progressively retire older, more polluting vehicles and locomotives, and put newer, cleaner models into service.

About The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Livingston, Montana, and Beijing. Visit us at

The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice is a grassroots, base building organization and one of the only environmental justice organizations in the Inland Valleys of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Founded in 1978 with the battle to clean up the Stringfellow Acid Pits, California's top priority Superfund site, the organization provides leadership development, information and skills training to families in communities most heavily burdened by pollution so they may "speak for themselves" in addressing these critical health issues. CCAEJ's main office is located on 13 acres in Jurupa Valley where they have developed a community park. Visit us at

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