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News / Business / Clark County Business

‘Pollutants’ from BNSF locomotives in rail yard called ‘outrageous’ by Lincoln neighborhood residents

Smoke, steam coming from increasing traffic at maintenance facility have residents worried about air quality

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 24, 2024, 6:07am
4 Photos
BNSF locomotives idling in the railroad&rsquo;s maintenance yard near West 39th Street have residents worried about pollution and noise.
BNSF locomotives idling in the railroad’s maintenance yard near West 39th Street have residents worried about pollution and noise. (James Rexroad/for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Smoke and steam billowing from locomotives parked at BNSF Railway’s maintenance yard near West 39th Street has some residents worried about what’s ending up in their air.

“For more than seven years, BNSF has been emitting outrageous amounts of air pollutants from their maintenance facility nearly every day and often throughout the day,” resident Johanna Barron said Tuesday.

Barron said the neighborhood is home to several parks, adding that the maintenance yard is nestled between Fruit Valley and Lincoln elementary schools.

Since moving to the Lincoln neighborhood, Barron said a cleaning station and new tracks have been added to the yard, increasing both noise and pollution in the area. She said there are vulnerable people, including a child with cystic fibrosis, living in the neighborhood and that the toxic smoke pouring into the neighborhood is “outrageous.” The yard now has more than two dozen tracks with cars moving in and out all day, every day.

“I have made dozens of complaints to BNSF, the Environmental Protection Agency and Southwest Clean Air Agency with no improvement — only increased emissions,” Barron said. “BNSF will not disclose what they are exposing the community to, nor if there is any attempt to monitor or comply with clean-air laws.”

When asked about what pollutants may be in the emissions and how often pollution events are occurring, BNSF would not directly respond to The Columbian’s questions.

“Railroads are the most fuel-efficient way of moving freight over land, moving one ton of freight nearly 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel. It’s also worth noting railroads are three to four times more fuel-efficient than trucks,” BNSF spokesperson Kendall Sloan said in an email.

Sloan said a single train removes hundreds of trucks from local roads and highways and that moving freight by rail, rather than by truck, lowers greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75 percent on average.

“Freight railroads account for about 40 percent of U.S. long distance freight volumes, yet they produce just 0.5 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and just 17 percent of transportation-related emissions,” Sloan said.

The railroad has apparently been more willing to discuss the neighborhood’s air quality issues with the residents. In an April email to Barron, shared with The Columbian, BNSF Senior Manager Ashley Lane said the yard is a repair facility for “bad ordered” locomotives, or cars in need of repair.

“These repairs ultimately result in our locomotive engines operating more effectively, but during the repair process, you may see more emissions than would typically be associated with these engines,” Lane said in an email. “The locomotives you are concerned about are not merely idling without cause — rather, we are working on identifying and fixing issues on these engines so they can operate as cleanly as possible.”

Lane also said the railroad recently changed its operations, and more cars are coming into the yard for repairs.

When The Columbian asked for further information about the repairs being performed and possible adverse impacts to air quality, Sloan said, “We don’t have anything to add to the statement we sent you.”

However, in an email to the residents, shared with The Columbian, Lane said residual fuel, oil and water is heated and burned off, resulting in a “fast-dissipating vapor cloud.”

When it comes to monitoring and enforcing air quality standards, there seems to be little local officials can do. Uri Papish from Southwest Clean Air Agency said he is aware of the issues.

“We have had complaints from residents in that area,” Papish said Tuesday. “We are exempt from taking regulatory actions against mobile sources.”

Air quality monitoring stations to the north and to the east of the train yard show satisfactory air quality.

Papish said regulatory oversight for railroads falls to the federal government, specifically the Surface Transportation Board. Even the Environmental Protection Agency is limited in its enforcement when it comes to railroads, he said.

That’s little comfort to the residents. Barron has suggested the use of scrubbers and exhaust filters to BNSF and continues to push for better information and communication from the railroad.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.