October 3, 2008

San Bernardino Residents Urge Cleaner Air Immediately

SAN BERNARDINO - Air pollution reductions can't come soon enough for a number of people who live near BNSF Railway's yard.

Westside residents crowded the council chambers at City Hall on Wednesday night to demand air quality improvements around their neighborhoods.

State regulators and BNSF employees heard about three hours of angry, frightened and impassioned words from people who demanded to know why the best possible technology could not be purchased for the San Bernardino rail yard at the earliest possible time.

Wednesday evening's meeting followed the release of a draft cleanup plan that sets targets for emissions reductions in 2015 and 2020. Although BNSF executive Mark Stehly took pains to point out the rail company has tried to cut pollution since 2005, many in the audience remained upset by having to wait for more breathable air.

"Does one of your children have to suffer from cancer so you can take awareness?" one audience member asked Stehly and the regulators at the meeting.

Cancer risks around BNSF's San Bernardino yard have come to public attention after the California Air Resources Board released the draft of a study called a Health Risk Assessment in April. The report, which relied on 2005 data, concluded that emissions from trains, trucks and other vehicles in and around the 168-acre railroad yard present elevated cancer risks to people who live in the surrounding neighborhood.

In 2005, engines coughed up 33 tons of diesel particulate matter within one mile of the San Bernardino yard, according to the report. Researchers used a mathematical formula to show that in a worst- case scenario, diesel pollution increases the cancer risk by 500 chances or more per million cases for about 3,800 people who are the rail yard's closest neighbors.

The increased risk is above the 1,000-in-one-million cancer risk that regulators call the "background level" in the South Coast Air Basin of Southern California. The "background level" is the cancer risk that residents face simply by living in the Inland Empire or the greater Los Angeles area.

Harold Holmes Jr., the California Air Resources Board's engineering evaluation manager, said Wednesday that cancer risks around the San Bernardino yard are expected to be reduced by 85percent by 2020.

At Wednesday's meeting, regulators expressed agreement with residents that the current cleanup timeline is not fast enough, but also said current technology levels do not make it feasible for railroad companies to immediately switch from diesel engines to cleaner equipment.

"There is kind of a flow of time that it takes," said Robert Fletcher, chief of the Air Resources Board's Stationary Sources Division. "It's not like we're standing still and nothing's happening."

Since 2005, BNSF has replaced 30 vehicles used to haul cargo around the yard with cleaner models, Stehly said. The company has also decided to bring in greener switching engines by 2015.

"You have our highest attention," Stehly said. "We are doing things here we don't do anywhere else."

Like the many residents who attended the meeting and voiced their concerns about cancer - some said family members died of the disease - Mayor Pat Morris and 1st Ward Councilwoman Esther Estrada called for quick action to reduce pollution.

"We all have relatives and friends who have died of cancer," Estrada said Wednesday.

Estrada said people living near the railroad yard need to organize and press for improvements. She also said it may be necessary for BNSF to relocate its San Bernardino operations.

[email protected]

(909) 386-3921

(c) 2008 The Sun, San Bernardino, Calif.. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.