ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Imagine living next to a busy rail yard with trains and trucks in constant motion at all hours of the day and night.
(Soundbite of passing vehicles)
SIEGEL: Not only is it noisy but the soot isn't good for you. Scientists have linked high levels of diesel exhaust to serious health problems. And now California officials are measuring those health costs in communities near active rail yards.
From member station KQED, Sarah Varney has this report.
SARAH VARNEY: A locomotive pulls a long line of railcars behind the tidy row of houses in the city of Commerce, a working class community a few miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Angelo Logan(ph) grew up here.
Mr. ANGELO LOGAN (Resident, Commerce, California): I remember when we were kids we used to come back here on that street, and we'd, you know, ride our bikes and there's a lot of small, little factories and little shops here. And now, it's all become occupied by the railroad and its moving operations.
VARNEY: When this town incorporated in 1960, residents, proud of their ties to manufacturing and eager to court business, chose the name Commerce. Now the city is a booming metropolis of trade that runs on diesel fuel.
Twenty-four hours a day, trucks haul cargo containers from the ports of Los Angeles, packed with plasma televisions and plastic toys to the sprawling rail yards here. Towering cranes move the containers onto trains that fan out across the country.
Sandwiched between the freight yards are the city's old neighborhoods. Manicured front lawns are littered with Tunka Trucks and plastic jungle gyms. A layer of black soot mutes the cheery yellow and blue stucco homes that press into rail yard fences. Commerce is a city saturated in diesel exhaust.
Mayor ROBERT FIERRO (Commerce, California): We all live with them because we've been living with them for so many years, so we got used to them.
VARNEY: Robert Fierro is the mayor of Commerce and a schoolteacher. He, Logan, and others in the community are fuming over a state health study released earlier this year. California EPA regulators went into Commerce and did an assessment of health risk in the area. They found the air quality is so bad that the cancer risk for families living closest to the rail yards is 180 times higher than what's considered acceptable. And the soot that spreads for miles around these yards increases the likelihood of cancer for 1.2 million people.
In the past, air regulators have focused on reducing diesel emissions at the ports, which are the largest polluters. But now the state's ever expanding rail yards are coming under greater scrutiny.
Mr. HAROLD HOLMES (Manager, Engineering Evaluation Section, California Air Resources Board): I don't think even one premature death is acceptable from the Air Resources Board's perspective.
VARNEY: Harold Holmes works for Cal EPA's Air Resources Board, or CARB.
Mr. HOLMES: Our goal is always to reduce emissions as much as we possibly can so that we can protect public health.
VARNEY: CARB entered into a voluntary agreement two years ago with two major railroads that operate in the city of Commerce and elsewhere in the state. As interstate Commerce, railroads are exempt from many state and local pollution laws. The railroads are now burning cleaner fuel and have installed devices to control idling.
But now that CARB can point to a clear increase cancer risk near the rail yards, Holmes says the board intends to ask railroads to do more by replacing dirty diesel engines with expensive new ones, and it's hoping to use state funds to help truckers install tailpipe filters.
Kirk Markwald represents the Association of American Railroads. He says the railroads are willing partners.
Mr. KIRK MARKWALD (Representative, Association of American Railroads): My belief is looking at what the railroads have done in the past with respect to their commitment to fair share emission reductions, that they will continue to do their fair share in reducing it around the facility.
VARNEY: But there's a lot of distrust in Commerce about whether the railroads will follow through. Relations haven't quite been the same since 2003 when a rail company diverted dozens of runaway freight cars headed for Los Angeles to the city of Commerce. The cars crashed into blue-collar homes, some with residents still inside. There were only minor injuries, but bulldozers had to clean up the wreckage and mountains of debris.
Kurt Weiss works for the local agency charged with cleaning up L.A.'s notoriously polluted air.
Mr. KURT WEISS (Attorney, Air Quality Agency): We share the community position that the railroads have not been good corporate citizens. They haven't been good neighbors. And I'd be very surprised if there are meaningful risk reduction measures that are undertaken.
VARNEY: Commerce Mayor Robert Fierro says he doesn't want to get rid of the rail yards but he says the derailment and the recent cancer study means local leaders should be given a louder voice in regulating polluters in their own backyard.
Mayor FIERRO: Now that we feel like it's more evident that more people are suffering, I think that's - well, kind of, woke everybody up. And this is how we are approaching it and are now more a little bit more vicious, because it's just we're being too nice.
VARNEY: The recent cancer study could give more ammunition to the citizens of Commerce as they continue to push for a cleanup of the freight transport industry.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney.
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