Report Examines Death, Disease Linked to Diesel Locomotive Pollution

A new Environmental Defense report finds that diesel locomotive air pollution is linked to about 3,400 premature deaths and other serious health effects every year, and calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect human health by issuing overdue clean air standards. Environmental Defense's report, "Smokestacks on Rails: Getting Clean Air Solutions for Locomotives on Track," examines diesel train pollution nationally and in Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Detroit, Houston-Galveston and Los Angeles (see the report and summary).

Most of the trains in America today are powered by diesel engines. Diesel exhaust contains particulate matter, a deadly form of air pollution that's linked to lung cancer and other respiratory problems. Diesel exhaust also contains smog-forming oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, which falls back to earth as acid rain, and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

In 2004, the EPA announced plans to issue proposed national locomotive emission standards in 2005 and to such standards by mid-2006. But EPA has failed to act. Environmental Defense's new report calls on the EPA to fulfill its public commitment and strengthen clean air standards for these high polluting "smokestacks on rails."

While trains capture the vivid imagination of children during the holiday season and are workhorses in American commerce, the pollution from locomotive smokestacks imposes a heavy burden on human health," said Bill Chameides, Ph.D., chief scientist at Environmental Defense and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. "With EPA's leadership, we can protect America's lungs from locomotive pollution and deliver America's freight with cleaner engines."

The use of trains for freight transport has doubled in the last 35 years, and today trains release levels of smog-forming oxides of nitrogen (NOx) comparable to 120 coal-fired power plants. In Chicago, for example, locomotives discharged as much NOx into the air in one year as 25 million cars meeting today's automotive emission standards. By 2030, EPA estimates that trains will be responsible for about one-third of all particulate pollution in the air from the transportation sector, unless more protective emission standards are put in place.

"Fortunately, solutions to clean up locomotive pollution are at hand," said Environmental Defense staff attorney Janea Scott. "The cleaner fuel that enables advanced cleaner-diesel technology is already on the books, and emissions-reducing technologies are already being tested."

Hybrid switcher engines for trains, called Green Goats, can cut fuel use by as much as 70 percent and emissions by up to 90 percent. New technologies can keep train engines warm while they are turned off so the trains don't have to idle. But right now rigorous clean air solutions are not required by law.

The report also calls for new programs to encourage faster clean up of today's dirty train engines, and full funding of grant programs to help lower harmful pollutants from diesel engines on the road today. The federal Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, which was passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support in 2005, authorized $200 million in annual funding for diesel retrofits but appropriations have fallen far short.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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