Railyard pollution in Southern California is a devastating problem. At least ten major railyards operate in the Inland Empire and Los Angeles and, according to the latest data, collectively emit about 125 tons of diesel exhaust every year. That’s a lot of deadly pollution coming from just a handful of facilities in an already over-polluted region. Diesel exhaust is a cancer-causing, planet-warming pollutant. It’s a byproduct of the combustion process in a diesel engine, and there’s no safe level of it for people to breathe.
The impact that railyard pollution has on our region is even more troubling given that the South Coast Air Basin experiences some of the worst air quality in the country. Our region has failed to meet any of the federal air quality standards for ozone, an important component of smog, since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first began regulating ozone pollution in 1979.
Railyard facilities are located surprisingly close to where people live and work. There’s no good reason for this, but it can be explained by the fact that railyards are designed to be close to our grocery store shelves, storefronts, and front doors. Decades of racist zoning policies mean that you’re much more likely to find a freight railyard near low-income communities of color than anywhere else. Wilmington, San Bernardino, Colton, Hobart, and other neighborhoods are carrying the largest burden of these polluting hubs.
One of the most meaningful parts of my work as an environmental lawyer at Earthjustice is supporting community members as they fight to make their neighborhoods safe. On March 8th, residents across the South Coast Air Basin, an area that includes large parts of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties, logged on to a zoom webinar with a shared goal of eliminating railyard pollution through strong regulation. They were there to learn about a forthcoming first-of-its-kind regulation from the South Coast Air Quality Management District which, if passed, will reduce emissions from proposed railyards yet to be constructed.
This regulation is known as the New Railyard Indirect Source Review (ISR) rule. The Air District’s Board will decide whether to adopt this rule in October 2023. Worth noting, this new regulation will not clean up any pollution from the ten or more railyards that are already polluting our basin, but an upcoming regulation expected next year will address emissions from existing facilities. Thankfully, these rules are finally coming to fruition, but it took decades of residents demanding that air regulators do something to clean up these facilities.
Our work isn’t over. The outstanding question for both rules is: How much pollution will we allow railyards to dump into neighboring communities and the region? The focus needs to be on ensuring that railyards do not further add to the health issues local residents experience. Right now, the New Railyard ISR rule is on track to require only modest emission reductions. And since this regulation only addresses railyards that haven’t been built yet, residents will continue to experience pollution regardless of the ISR rule outcome.
The call from Southern California advocates is clear: zero pollution is the only acceptable level. We have from now until October to make sure the Air District hears this call and takes action.
What You Can Do
If you are interested in supporting this call for zero-emission railyards, consider attending an upcoming community meeting to voice your concerns. The Air District will explain the draft regulation and take input from stakeholders on the agency’s proposed approach. An in-person meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, April 11, 2023 from 5:30-7:30 pm PST in Wilmington, California, and a remote meeting will be on Wednesday, April 12, 2023 from 6-8 pm. Additional information on how to access these events can be found here.