First in an occasional series.
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- Teresa Flores has lived her entire life surrounded by a tangle of rail lines in this low-income, west-side neighborhood, listening to train whistles and horns and what she calls the "crash bang boom."
"Every time a train comes through a road crossing, they blow the whistle three times. You can hear the train coming from Cajon Pass all the way over to here," the 57-year-old said as she surveyed her neighborhood on a recent hot day. "When these guys change trailers, you can hear all that noise. And when they use the lifts to put the containers on the back of the trailers, you can hear them, too. Once in a while, you hear them drop it."
It's only gotten worse in the past decade, as the rail yard has become a major hub for shipping cargo from California ports to the rest of the country. Flores' neighborhood has become a transit hub. Large trucks are common, weaving among single-story houses, daycare centers and parks. Several auto repair and tire shops have popped up, along with an Omnitrans public bus facility a few blocks from Ramona-Allessandro Elementary School.
Flores and other longtime residents blame the rail yard for a host of problems, asthma and cancer among them. The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) has taken up the fight, staging rallies, lobbying politicians and at one point erecting a billboard with the photograph of an asthmatic 3-year-old girl.
But like all environmental justice debates, the solution is complex. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway -- which manages the 168-acre site -- employs hundreds of local workers and oversees an operation that is integral to interstate commerce. It is unlikely to close or move. Yet thousands of residents are in the backyard of a facility that emits an estimated 22 tons of diesel soot every year, causing the California Air Resources Board (ARB) to label it in 2008 as the state's most hazardous rail yard when it comes to cancer risk.
"To me, this is almost a philosophical question that infringes on social justice," said Sam Soret, a professor at nearby Loma Linda University. "Are some communities subsidizing with their health and other community disruptions the movement of goods from which we all benefit?"
Soret and nine other investigators hope to add hard evidence to the equation, embarking on a two-year study that will directly measure residents' lung capacity and tissue inflammation. Funded by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, it will be the first study to attempt to directly link rail yard emissions with nearby residents' health; other efforts have only extrapolated data and estimated the effects.
"It's a pivotal rail yard," CCAEJ executive director Penny Newman said. "If we can demonstrate that there are documented health problems in a significant level at this rail yard, I think that information then can be utilized to address all rail yards."
On a recent weekday, Susana Negrete pointed at the dozens of children splashing in the pool at Gateway Park. To the south lay the freight trains, constantly arriving and departing; to the north, public transit buses fueled up at the Omnitrans facility.
Negrete, 46, has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, sending three of her four sons to the Guadalupe Child Development preschool on the edge of the park. Those three now have serious respiratory problems -- a fact she blames on the school's proximity to the rail yard.
"It's in the middle of all this polluted area," said Negrete, who now works as a community organizer for CCAEJ. "There's too many preschools or Head Starts in this community. It's a low-income community so we have to work two or three jobs to be able to survive so we have to have this type of help."
The rail yard hasn't always bothered residents, some of whom have family ties to railroad workers.
San Bernardino rail yard was built in the late 1800s on the outskirts of the city; in the past century, however, the city has steadily expanded until residents were drying their laundry 200 feet from trains that spew emissions into the air all day and night.
Even now, advocacy groups don't aim to close the facility down. It directly provides 500 jobs in an economically depressed area and indirectly fuels thousands more. But an atmosphere of distrust has sprouted, where BNSF claims sharp cuts in emissions and residents wonder what to believe.
"It's a little hard to tell what they have done. There's absolutely no monitoring that takes place, so how do you know?" Newman said. "If you say you're making that reduction, show us."
A 2008 report from ARB didn't help BNSF's reputation; in it, researchers claimed that the rail yard carried the highest cancer risk of any in the state thanks to its heavy emissions and location in a densely populated community. ARB estimated that the cancer risk at the property's boundaries was above 500 in a million; the Clean Air Act sets a goal of one in a million.
But BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent emphasized that the report was based on mathematical projections -- not on actual testing. The study assumed, for example, that someone would be outside 70 years straight doing moderate exercise next to the rail yard.
"This was a voluntary step that we took so that we could determine where we could have the greatest impact" in implementing upgrades, she said. "It was never intended to actually say this many people are going to get cancer adjacent to our facility."
Soret said the Loma Linda study will hopefully remove such guesswork by collecting data directly from residents and comparing their health with that of a similar community a few miles away. He does not expect to discover much about the cancer rate -- the disease's complex causes and long latency period make that difficult, he said -- but he is fairly convinced residents' lungs are feeling the effects from the constant train and truck traffic.
"My hunch is that there's probably going to be an effect," he said in an interview near the Loma Linda University campus, which is a 10-minute drive from the rail yard. "I'm a scientist and I'm prepared for any findings, but to me it's not inconsiderable at all ... with the rail yard there and the amount of emissions that come out."
As U.S. EPA puts increasing emphasis on environmental justice issues, the complexity of the situation in affected communities sometimes gets lost amid the ideals.
In San Bernardino, the railroad came first, but the residents also cannot afford to live anywhere else. They hate the noise and the smog, but they also have friends, spouses and children who earn a living off the business brought in from the railroad.
Residents like Flores want balance: clean engines that reduce the health risks, and common-sense policies that take into account the community's quality of life.
Whether BNSF is attempting to meet those goals has spurred debate.
Kent says the company is phasing out old engines and replacing them with the cleanest option available. Newman said the company makes promises but does not provide proof for its claims. Some residents don't even realize there is a debate at all; while picnicking in Gateway Park last week, Sandra Regalado said she didn't know of the risks until hearing about Loma Linda's study.
"I never thought about it until now," she said. "It's not like it smells or anything."
But the rail yard has become a testing ground for legal avenues to control pollution. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently pressured BNSF and Union Pacific Corp. to adopt idling control devices, modernize fleets and keep up with the latest technology or risk a lawsuit charging them with violating the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The law gives EPA the authority to control the generation, transportation, treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous waste.
NRDC claims the companies are "illegally disposing" of hazardous waste by emitting diesel particulate pollution.
"People living near these rail yards are exposed to startling levels of pollution and carcinogens every day," NRDC senior attorney David Pettit said in a statement last week. "Poisoning people should not be a cost of doing business in California."
EPA has also kept an eye on the site, with an official most recently visiting in December. The city is the recipient of at least two brownfield grants to assess environmental contamination; the rail yard is within the scope of the project.
While the rail yard is the most obvious business in the neighborhood, it is not the only worry for residents.
In a colleague's car -- hers lacked air conditioning in the 110-degree heat -- Negrete led a tour last week of neighborhood blight, including Robertson's Ready Mix, a concrete mixing facility whose dirt reaches into the backyards of bordering homes. Residents say the dust forces them to constantly replace air filters; with no fence, the site has also become an after-school hangout for students of Arroyo Valley High School.
A few blocks away, the Omnitrans bus facility also worries neighbors, who watch as bushes surrounding the company's fueling station die each year, only to be replaced with fresh green foliage. In 1999, parents of children attending nearby Ramona-Allessandro Elementary School expressed concern over the smell of an additive added to the natural gas; whenever it leaked, a rotten smell would waft over to the school. The facility has since switched from compressed natural gas to liquid natural gas.
To Kent, these examples support BNSF's contention that the rail yard is just one piece of a much larger pollution puzzle.
Not only does the area around the rail yard include several other businesses, it also sits next to Interstate 215, a busy highway that hosts a constant stream of trucks and cars. The wider area also suffers from a chronic air pollution problem, thanks to its location in the middle of a valley that holds all the pollution in a stagnant cloud.
"We know that there is no scientific way that they can tie health issues to our facility," Kent said, adding: "Everybody needs to do their fair share to reduce emissions whether an individual or a business. We certainly believe we have done our fair share."
She pointed to the installation of idle-reduction devices on all locomotives and the construction of an automatic gate system that speeds up the processing of trucks (cutting down on the time they sit in line with their engines on). The "average" locomotive in BNSF's fleet, Kent said, is a "Tier 2," meaning its diesel engine is designed to emit less particulate matter, among other things.
The company has also entered several voluntary agreements with ARB and met their stipulations, including a reduction of emissions by 50 percent since 2005. BNSF is now entering a third agreement that will require the company to further cut emissions by 85 percent by 2020, using 2005 as a baseline.
Residents will gather data
But Newman contends that the measurements have not been made public; instead, BNSF reports its emissions directly to the state agency. And Graciela Larios, a CCAEJ community organizer who lives in nearby Los Angeles, scoffed at such promises.
"Who's talking about year 2020? We're talking about now," she said. "For them to say 2020, it was a complete joke to us."
Residents hope the Loma Linda study provides help more quickly. Soret and his colleagues have trained three groups of community members to test their neighbors' lung capacity and tissue inflammation, as well as ask detailed questions about their health. If a problem is discovered, that person will be referred to a doctor -- something many of the low-income residents in this community can rarely afford.
Negrete is one of the few who has health insurance, and she often uses it. Last month, she went to the doctor after she noticed she was wheezing and came away with five medications. She's now sick again.
"My kids want me to move," she said. "Unfortunately, it's not as easy as we think."
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.