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Environmental Group Sues Railroads Over Local Pollution

An environmental law group Tuesday sued the two major railroads operating in Los Angeles, alleging that diesel pollution from their trains is causing health problems for residents living near the yards.

Read this story IN SPANISH: Grupo Ambiental Demanda a los Ferrocarriles por la Contaminación [1]

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s complaint, filed in Los Angeles federal court, seeks to hold Union Pacific Railroad and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. accountable for what it contends are medical problems suffered by those living near rail yards in Carson, Commerce and downtown Los Angeles.

The lawsuit seeks to prove harm and force the railroads to clean up the rail yards. Research shows diesel pollution is linked to cancer, asthma, and other respiratory and heart conditions, according to the litigants. Groups suing include East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.

The suit represents “hundreds of thousands of Californians” who live near the state’s 17 railyards, according to NRDC’s press release. Some of these people live in Commerce and East Los Angeles and have been severely affected by railyard pollution, says Angelo Logan, executive director for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

EYCEJ Executive Director Angelo Logan, pictured, says they have been urging railroad companies in Commerce to reduce their pollution levels for years.

“For too long our communities have borne the brunt of deadly diesel pollution from nearby rail yards,” Logan said. “It is time the railroad companies right the wrongs that they have imposed on California residents. It is time that Union Pacific and BNFS become good neighbors.”

Logan and other litigants argue that the railroad companies have long disregarded the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, RCRA. Under this act, “if you are a company and you release toxic pollution, you are required to either eliminate or reduce it so that public health is not at risk,” he said.

NRDC senior attorney David Pettit said the “rail industry is subject to the same laws as other major polluters,” and “must be held accountable for the health problems their operations cause.”

People who live near rail yards in places like San Bernardino “should have the same quality of air as people living in Beverly Hills,” he said.

Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF, characterized the suit as one of a series of attacks on “the goods movement industry,” and said the railroad has successfully reduced emissions and purchased new, cleaner locomotives.

“We’ve spent millions of dollars to do our fair share to ensure the railroads are environmentally friendly, and the NRDC completely ignores our efforts,” she said. “It’s frustrating.”

Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific, said the company had not yet seen the filing, but maintained that the railroad is in compliance with state and federal regulations and recently received a Clean Air Excellence Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We are proud of our rail industry leadership role in testing and developing technology that improves fuel efficiency, reduces emissions and provides sustainable freight transportation solutions that support America’s economy,” he said.

Before suing, NRDC attorneys gave the railroad companies 90 days to reduce harmful pollutants. Methods included using locomotives, trucks and equipment that meet stringent EPA emission standards, such as electric vehicles; adopting idling control devices and prohibiting idling near residences, and fleet modernization. However, “no progress was made or any good faith effort on behalf of UP or BNSF to address the pollutants,” according to NRDC.