Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends
Environment & Science

No light at the end of the tunnel, as regulators and railroads are still fighting about air quality

Molly Peterson/KPCC

Railyard companies are asking a federal court to find the executive director of this region's air quality management district in contempt, according to lawyers familiar with the case and news reports out of the Inland Empire.

The move comes in a court battle over rules governing idling locomotives California and regional air regulators tried to make. The California Air Resources Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District want to limit diesel particulate pollution from trains because that kind of pollution is associated with way higher cancer rates in fence line neighborhoods. Railroads have long claimed that California can't do that, because federal law precludes the state from regulating matters of interstate commerce. In 2007, a federal district court judge agreed. And so since then, the air district hasn't tried to enforce those rules.

So why are the railroads beefing? Because California's not dropping it. Locomotive idling limits are in a plan the state wants applied to more than a dozen and a half rail yards around California. David Danelski reports in the Press-Enterprise:

The railroad attorneys now say that including the idling limits in the region’s official air pollution clean-up plan violates the “spirit and the letter” of the order that stopped the air district from “implementing or enforcing any provision” of the rules, according to court papers filed by railroad attorney Mark E. Elliott.

As for why California air officials aren't dropping it, they seem to believe there's a light at the end of the tunnel. An appeal in the same case went to the 9th circuit, and while it wasn't successful, they may have gotten an assist out of it. In the opinion of Judge Susan Graber, environmental lawyers and the air district see daylight: how, perhaps, to crack down on idling.

Because the District’s rules have not become a part of California’s EPA-approved state implementation plan, they do not have the force and effect of federal law, even if they might in the future. [emphasis mine]

The State Implementation Plan is a kind of master strategy for how California tries to comply with federal limits on air pollution. It's monumentally complicated, and it gets changed a lot. Idling rules for locomotives could be just one of many changes that get added to the plan, and, the logic goes, if federal regulators approve that plan, then regional guys aren't usurping the role of the federal government when it comes to interstate commerce. AQMD's lawyers have filed a statement from executive director Wallerstein justifying that by pointing to this ruling:

I believed and continue to believe that the Ninth Circuit decision in this case authorized and contemplated that the District could submit the Rules for inclusion into the state implementation plan. I never believed that such action was prohibited by the injunction in this case.

What this all means is that Wallerstein and other AQMD officials will likely testify in the case later this month. Railroads aren't the only ones interested in what AQMD officials will say under oath in open court about diesel particulate pollution and their priorities about it. Especially since AQMD officials had to declare how little they're doing about diesel particulate pollution in order to counter the contempt claim. This kind of thing doesn't happen much.