Group focuses on train pollution Idling locomotives in the Eugene rail yard raise health concerns

Train pollution is being investigated all over the country and by the EPA this year.

Train pollution is being investigated in several cities all over the country and by the EPA this year.

Originally published by the Register-Guard.


To Trainsong Neighborhood resident Jim Tiley, the difference is stark.

It’s one shiny new locomotive on the Eugene rail yard tracks sitting next to another locomotive that’s half-blackened, he said.

New locomotives are fitted with pollution control devices and anti-idling equipment. But an old puffer may sit idling on the tracks — putting out diesel smoke that’s laden with toxic-bearing particulate, according to a report by the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency.

“I’ve been reading about diesel particulates and how nasty they are,” said Tiley, who lives a half-block from the tracks. “When you see there are things that can be done, you start to ask questions about why they haven’t.”

In the next couple of weeks, a group of Eugene government, political and environmental leaders are planning to meet with Union Pacific about locomotive idling in the Eugene rail yard, which is on the north side of the city between Highway 99 and the Northwest Expressway.

The purpose is to find out how much time locomotives in the freight yard spend idling, what emission controls those locomotives have and whether there’s additional technology, if any, that Union Pacific could employ to reduce the amount of particulate going into the Trainsong Neighborhood, according to Brenda Wilson, the Eugene intergovernmental affairs manager.

Union Pacific wants “to provide us with any information that we think we need. They’re willing to sit down and talk with us face to face,” she said.

Locomotives emit 53 tons of particulate in Lane County each year, the LRAPA report said.

Reducing diesel emissions is a major focus of LRAPA locally and the Environmental Protection Agency nationally because breathing the fine particulate in diesel smoke is a known hazard to human health.

The particles are small — about 1 /25th the diameter of a human hair — and, when people breathe the smoke, the particles go deep into the lungs.

Young children living near train tracks are prone to wheezing, a precursor condition of asthma, according to a recent University of Arizona study.

“California State (University) has identified significantly elevated cancer risk for people that live nearby rail yards,” said Kevin Downing, clean diesel program coordinator for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The locomotives stationed at the Eugene freight yard are called “switch” locomotives because they’re used to hook up and move cars from train-to-train to alter the cars’ destination, Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt said. Citing “competitive reasons,” Hunt, who is based in Roseville, Calif., declined to say how many switch locomotives are stationed in Eugene.

But there are some reasons that locomotives must idle, he said.

Idling keeps the charge on the air brakes and recharges the batteries. It keeps the engine fluids from freezing on a below-freezing day.

“Sometime these engines are just hard to stop and start again” so crews keep them going, Downing said. “There’s a certain amount of past practice, of course. This is just they way we’ve done it and the way we are always going to do it.”

But there are ways to dramatically reduce diesel emissions, say state and federal regulators. One technology, called a diesel-driven heating system, is akin to the power units now installed on trucks.

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