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Environmental news from California and beyond

Rail-yard pollution: Federal court rules against air quality board

September 15, 2010 |  3:51 pm

Air-quality watchdogs in Southern California can't impose limits on pollution from idling trains because that could interfere with interstate commerce -- a federal responsibility -- a U.S. appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The lawsuit filed by the Assn. of American Railroads and the BNSF and Union Pacific railroad companies challenged restrictions imposed in 2005 and 2006 by the South Coast Air Quality Management District in an attempt to curb cancer-causing air pollution. The district covers Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Diesel emissions from trains, trucks and ships are linked to 2,100 early deaths in the region each year, according to the California Air Resources Board. In recent weeks, local residents and community justice organizations have been protesting railroad pollution around the San Bernardino rail yard, judged by the state resources board to present the most acute health risk among California's 18 most polluted rail hubs.

The Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 expressly states that federal regulation preempts state and local laws when they unreasonably burden interstate commerce, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said in its ruling.

The judges noted, however, that the local air district's rules could eventually gain the force of law if they are  incorporated into the state's environmental regulations and approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Melissa Lin Perrella of the Natural Resources Defense Council said local officials and environmental groups throughout Southern California are working on new regulations to reduce pollution by controlling the flow of freight from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports onto the roads and rails. "It's no secret that Los Angeles has some of the worst air quality in the nation and year after year after year violates federal air-quality standards," Lin Perrella said.

Forty percent of the containerized cargo entering the United States flows through the two San Pedro Bay ports. Most of it is shipped through some of the region's poorest neighborhoods, many of them Latino and African American, on trucks and trains to other destinations.

-- Carol J. Williams