At the vast BNSF rail yard in Kansas City, Kan., dozens of trains stretch into the distance. You can feel them rumble. You can hear the roar of 4,400-horsepower diesel locomotives.
And you can smell their exhaust.
For generations, the rail yard has been the economic lifeblood of the economically challenged Argentine and Turner communities, employing more than 2,000 people. But lately, residents have worried that air pollution from the yard could be damaging their health.
For more than a year, they’ve been monitoring the air quality just outside the rail yard, stationing a portable air sampling device on porches and in front yards to collect microscopic particles of diesel exhaust increasingly linked to lung diseases, cancer, heart attacks and premature births.
Those residents now say they have strong evidence that the rail yard’s locomotives produce unhealthy levels of pollution — high enough to create risks of death or hospitalization. They want the railroad to clean up the air.
They’re asking BNSF to install an air monitoring system around the yard and develop a plan for keeping the diesel emissions from traveling beyond the yard’s fence line.
Residents also want the railroad to upgrade pollution controls on its engines in the yard and to move the strenuous engine tests now done outdoors to an enclosure with air handlers and scrubbers to minimize workers’ and residents’ exposure to the exhaust.
“These numbers should generate great concern in our community,” said Ryan DeCaigny, a leader of the Argentine/Turner Good Neighbor Committee that has been monitoring air pollution levels. “We want these levels to drop toward zero. Our lives do matter.”
BNSF declined to comment on the group’s requests, but said that it has been regularly upgrading pollution controls on its engines.
“We have the newest, cleanest fleet of locomotives in the nation,” the railroad’s spokesman, Andy Williams, said.
The BNSF rail yard stretches for several miles south of the Kansas River. On its west side is a classification yard, where switch engines shuttle freight cars to assemble trains that will travel to destinations across the country. At the east end of the yard is a diesel servicing facility, with an eight-track open garage, where as many as 100 locomotives are inspected, fueled and repaired every day.
Argentine and Turner border the rail yard to the south. Many houses, like that of Tom Valverde, stand within a couple of blocks, or even directly across the street, from the tracks. Valverde, vice president of the Villa Argentina Neighborhood Association, let the Good Neighbor Committee post its air monitor in his lawn, which is close to the diesel servicing facility.
“My house has the dubious honor of having the worst air quality in the area,” he said. “Engines sit there and idle as if we don’t exist.”
As the transcontinental shipment of goods burgeoned with the growth of international trade, diesel air pollution has become an issue at rail yards, ports and other transportation hubs nationwide.
It became a grassroots issue in Kansas City, Kan., after Lawrence-based environmentalist Eric Kirkendall enlisted Richard Mabion, a member of the executive committee of the Sierra Club’s Kansas chapter and self-styled “Green Czar” of Kansas City, Kan., to use his connections to organize the community.
“It’s all about empowering people,” Mabion said.
At an organizing meeting, DeCaigny’s wife, Leticia, who was born and raised in Argentine, met Mabion.
“Richard said, ‘I really think we need to do a study to see what we’ve been breathing,’” she said. She volunteered and was put in charge of the project.
From November 2013 through January of this year, Leticia DeCaigny took the air monitor to dozens of sites in Turner and Argentine, where the device took 24-hour air samples. Altogether, 47 of the samples were tested for microscopic soot particles, called black or elemental carbon, commonly associated with diesel exhaust.
In 21 of the samples, the carbon readings hit levels that researchers have associated with an increased risk of hospitalization for heart and lung problems on the day of exposure. Seven of those samples had carbon levels above the threshold associated with an elevated risk of heart disease death within a few days of exposure.
The group’s initial suspicions were that much of the pollution was coming from the rail yard’s small intermodal facility, where containerized cargo was off-loaded to tractor-trailers. But BNSF phased out that facility last year as it shifted those operations to its new and much larger intermodal yard at Edgerton, Kan.
Readings taken from March through May showed diesel exhaust levels around the intermodal yard had dropped substantially. The highest readings, those associated with an elevated risk of death, were near the diesel servicing facility.
The facility operates around the clock. Outside the garage, locomotives undergo load tests to measure engine power and emissions tests to meet California’s strict environmental standards. The tests can take 30 minutes or longer with engines at times running at full capacity.
“I think there’s a hot spot associated with that facility,” said Craig Volland, a civil engineer with the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club who did the analysis. “The issue is how close residents are. They are very close.”
With community loyalty to the railroad strong, reactions to the group’s findings have been decidedly mixed.
Tempers flared at times during a community meeting Wednesday to discuss the air pollution report.
“Look at me. There’s nothing wrong with me,” said Leonard L. Rodriguez, a robust 89-year-old Argentine resident who worked 51 years for the railroad. “If you want to stay healthy, quit smoking.”
Loretta Escobar answered back: “I never smoked. And I never had asthma until I moved here.”
Escobar, 63, lives two blocks from the rail yard and close to the maintenance facility.
BNSF was invited to the meeting, but didn’t send any representatives.
But in the past, BNSF has said the short-term sampling isn’t enough to establish trends. A single “uncommon event” could throw off the readings coming from any of the sites where the monitor was placed.
Other factors, such as the weather and two busy highways — Interstate 635, which runs through the rail yard, and Interstate 70 to its north — also could affect the numbers, they said.
But BNSF has met privately a couple of times with the DeCaignys and other members of the committee, which the residents see as a sign that the railroad may be willing to cooperate.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency considers groups like the Good Neighbor Committee “citizen scientists” and encourages their work, said Amy Algoe-Eakin, air program section chief for the agency’s regional office in Lenexa. “This community monitoring adds another layer of screening. All of that information is useful,” she said.
The EPA gave the Kansas Department of Health and Environment a grant to install a park bench this spring in Argentine with solar and wind-powered air monitoring equipment that provides real-time readings of pollution levels.
But the EPA doesn’t regulate the ultra-fine particulates that the Good Neighbor Committee measures. And Kansas meets EPA’s existing air standards, so the agency can’t demand any additional controls on pollution, Algoe-Eakin said.
The committee wants the EPA to conduct a detailed study of diesel exhaust at the Argentine yard. Algoe-Eakin called that a possibility.
Algoe-Eakin said there may be opportunities to partner with scientists at the University of Kansas or the University of Missouri-Kansas City on such a project. “It’s worthy of discussion.”
For Escobar, that may come as a relief.
“Today, I didn’t go outside,” she said. “Sometimes, it just takes your breath away.”