Diesel fumes near Kansas City, Kan., rail yard pose health threat, report says

07/14/2014 5:18 PM

07/14/2014 5:49 PM

Leticia DeCaigny straps a portable air-sampling device to the side of a neighbor’s deck. For two days, the small gray box with what looks like a chimney on top will gather evidence of pollution from diesel engines.

“It’s like a human lung,” sucking in air as a person would breathe, DeCaigny says as she pushes some buttons that set the device whirring.

Just a few blocks away is the BNSF Railway’s vast Argentine rail yard, where switch engines move hundreds of freight cars to assemble trains headed for destinations across the country.

For generations, the yard has been the lifeblood of this economically challenged Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood, providing jobs and attracting industry. The trains rolling by make a constant, even reassuring sound.

But DeCaigny knows neighbors who regularly smell the diesel exhaust from the locomotives and the trucks that pick up and drop off cargo. She knows neighbors who can’t go outside for long without risking an asthma attack.

And she knows about the growing body of research that links diesel exhaust to a host of health problems —lung diseases, cancer, heart attacks and premature births.

So, with the help of a national environmental organization, DeCaigny has been taking this monitor from house to house for the past eight months to gather air samples in Argentine and the adjacent Turner neighborhood, where she lives and which also borders the rail yard.

The preliminary results from November through mid-June reveal what the environmentalists she is working with consider to be unhealthy levels of diesel exhaust, levels high enough on some days to send the elderly to the hospital or to raise the death rate among residents.

They will discuss their findings at a neighborhood meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the South Branch Library, 3104 Strong Ave.

BNSF officials, who have reviewed the environmentalists’ preliminary report, said it is too short on essential details about how the data were collected to judge its validity. But they said the kind of short-term sampling that was done 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 Denny Larson, executive director of Global Community Monitor, which provided DeCaigny the air monitor, said air sampled at seven of the 16 sites where DeCaigny placed the monitor contained diesel pollution at unhealthy levels, enough to indicate a disturbing pattern.

“It’s starting to show it’s a regular occurrence that the diesel is creating a health threat,” he said. “There are days in Argentine and Turner when it’s really unhealthy to breathe the air, and people should know that.”

With international trade booming, environmentalists are focusing greater attention on the diesel pollution from ports and intermodal hubs, where cargo is transferred. Containerized shipping, using standardized metal boxes, makes it easy to move cargo from ship’s hold to a freight train or tractor-trailer, all powered by diesel engines.

Global Community Monitor, a nonprofit environmental justice organization, also is working with environmental groups to monitor air quality in Galena Park, Texas, which receives much of the truck traffic from the Port of Houston, and in the large Gulf port of Plaquemines Parish, La.

Environmentally conscious California, where most cargo from Asia arrives, has been in the forefront of research and regulation of diesel exhaust at its ports.

“We get all the pollution with no real direct benefit to the community,” said Andrea Hricko of the University of Southern California’s Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center.

Hricko’s research has found that in California counties with major rail yards, nearby residents are more likely to be people of color, and with low incomes.

“There are already health disparities with income, but this adds an environmental factor,” Hricko said.

Of great concern to environmentalists are the very small particles that circulate in the air. The particles can come from dust, smoke from a fire or exhaust from a tailpipe. Once inhaled, they can stay trapped in the lungs and affect the heart, blood vessels and lungs.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has air-quality regulations for particles 2.5 microns or smaller in width. Such particles are invisible to the naked eye, less than one-thirtieth the width of a human hair.

The entire state of Kansas, including Wyandotte County and the Argentine rail yard, meets EPA standards for this kind of pollution.

The closest air-quality monitoring station to the Argentine rail yard is at the John F. Kennedy Community Center, a few miles to the north.

For more than six years, there’s been “a steady, steady drop” in particulate pollution from that site, said Tom Gross, the air monitoring and planning chief of the Kansas Bureau of Air, which does the monitoring for the EPA. “We view that as good news.”

Larson, of Global Community Monitor, said, “We agree with the state of Kansas and everybody else that if you look just at 2.5-micron particulates, there’s not a problem.”

But there is no regular federal monitoring of air pollution from the soot particles, called black or elemental carbon, that are commonly associated with diesel exhaust. DeCaigney’s monitor is designed to pick up this kind of pollution.

Unlike other fine particles that disperse over large areas, elemental carbon tends to stay close to where it is produced. So high readings are most likely along roads with heavy truck traffic or in the immediate vicinity of a rail yard.

Larson’s group employed an environmental scientist to make calculations from data in two recent academic studies to come up with threshold levels for what should be considered unhealthy levels of diesel pollution. One study linked high levels of diesel exhaust to increased hospitalizations for heart and lung problems among people ages 65 and older. The other study found that death rates among all ages were higher two or three days after a spike in diesel pollution.

“When those levels reach these thresholds, there’s an immediate risk,” Larson said. “It’s from short-term exposure.”

David Bryan of the EPA’s regional office for Kansas City said his agency has spoken to Larson about the monitoring underway. “We’d be interested in seeing his organization’s results.”

Driving through Argentine, DeCaigny points out Clopper Field, a public park right by the tracks that on weekends is packed with soccer players. Nearby, overlooking the rail yard, is a high rise for seniors. “They’re right on top of it,” she said.

She drives west into Turner, up to a health clinic and a community garden and orchard, and then circles past Turner High School, all close by the rail yard.

DeCaigny’s 8-year-old son died of brain cancer two years ago. She is particularly sensitive to environmental health issues.

“Knowing that some of the results are serious, this is something that needs to be known by the community,” she said.

BNSF said it has been making changes at the Argentine yard that reduce diesel exhaust. For example, switch engines are being used that turn off their main power while idling. And the rail yard’s intermodal facility is being phased out this year as BNSF moves those operations to its new Logistics Park in Edgerton. That’s taking a half-dozen diesel cranes out of service in Argentine.

But Larson said that’s not enough. He wants BNSF to fund a larger air-quality study by the EPA at the Argentine rail yard to see what further steps may be needed to reduce diesel pollution.

“It’s very laudable to bring in a new engine, but if you want to see if your measures are effective, you need to take measurements,” he said. “They’re on the right track, no pun intended. We need to make sure they keep moving ahead.”

To reach Alan Bavley, call 816-234-4858 or send email to abavley@kcstar.com.

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