An update from the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency executive director before county commissioners Tuesday turned a bit cloudy when the subject turned to the emission of diesel fumes.
Specifically, the Board of Spokane County Commissioners wanted to make sure that the SRCAA didn’t scare off any potential business to this area while the clean-air regulatory group worked on ways to reduce diesel emissions from Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s rail yard in the Yardley area bordering the city of Spokane Valley.
Acting on information developed in California that rail yards – which often have dozens of engines that run around the clock, 365 days a year – could be linked to increased cancer risk in those areas, SRCAA Director Bill Dameworth told commissioners he has approached officials with BNSF to incorporate technology that would shut down the engines when not in use.
When early talks with the railroad company went nowhere, the clean-air agency has been working on a more compulsory regulatory approach. However, such rules often prove troublesome to enforce, he said, due to pre-emptive federal regulations.
“It’s difficult to regulate the railroad folks,” Dameworth said.
Still, the new tact has gotten the attention of BNSF officials – or, more specifically, their lawyers, Dameworth said – and both parties have agreed to look into the issue before doing anything for six months.
According to a June 9 article in the Los Angeles Times, Southern California air-quality regulators are sponsoring an in-depth study to determine if the San Bernadino rail yard – also operated by BNSF – has caused an increase in cancer and asthma in neighboring communities. The study was commissioned two years after the California Air Resources Board made the determination that diesel emissions from locomotives, big-rigs and other equipment at the facility posed a health risk to thousands, many of low income, living near the site.
Last year, the SRCAA conducted a study comparing the Yardley rail yard with a similar-sized operation of the Union Pacific Railroad in Stockton, Calif. Although it was pointed out that the point of the study was “not to do an in-depth analysis of the effect of the Spokane BNSF rail yard cancer risk,” the SRCAA believed it is “not unreasonable” to extrapolate from the findings of a previous study of the Stockton site.
The CARB’s study showed cancer risks are about “100 chances in a million” within 200 yards of the UP Stockton rail yard boundary and about 50 chances per million within a half-mile from the facility.
Dameworth said any new regulations would be drafted for public health reasons and would target any facility that produces diesel emissions to the equivalent of 400 hours per day – or 40 trucks idling for 10 hours straight.
“That costs a lot of money (in fuel costs),” Dameworth said, “along with air pollution.”
Commissioner Todd Mielke said he is concerned over what effect such a rule could have on area truck stops like the ones located in the West Plains and Spokane Valley at Broadway and Interstate 90. Dameworth said they likely would not be impacted because they don’t produce the same emission levels the railroad companies do. The same logic, he said, would apply to area airports, where engines aren’t primarily running on diesel fuel.
Commissioner Mark Richard, however, said any new regulations should be reviewed for unintended consequences before they are ever put into effect.
“There’s always a balance,” Richard said, adding that there have been “hard-working efforts” to make the Spokane region a hub for trucking and rail companies.
“If we’re not careful there could be roadblocks or impediments to keep (such companies) from coming here or driving them away,” he said.
While Dameworth said he found “anything but rail yards this would apply to,” Richard said he appreciated the agency “hitting the pause button” to see if BNSF would comply voluntarily with installing new automatic start-stop equipment to keep engines operational even in cold weather.
Mielke asked if SRCAA would install air-monitoring equipment near the rail yard to ensure compliance. Dameworth replied that the agency didn’t intend to do that kind of monitoring if the rules are implemented – rather he hoped the railroad would be willing to make use of technological advancements to reduce diesel emissions.
“I don’t think it’s our intention to send the railroad out of town by any stretch,” he said. “Our job is to protect the public health here.”