The Next Page: Railroads should join civic groups in a mission to improve air quality
October 11, 2015 12:00 AM
Clyde Hare/Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
This 1951 photo, titled “Last Steam Train,” shows a steam locomotive passing beneath Mount Washington.
Conrail Locomotive 3320, circa 1987, with the now demolished Three Rivers Stadium in the background.
By Joel A. Tarr
Saturday, Aug. 8, was a beautiful day in Pittsburgh
My wife and I stood with out-of-town friends and other visitors on the Duquesne Incline overlook, enjoying the magnificent sights. This idyllic picture, much publicized by tourism agencies, was suddenly shattered by a fast-moving CSX locomotive (No. 597) on the tracks below.
The train was spewing black smoke! This, I thought, must be a flagrant violation of Allegheny County air pollution regulations and hastened to snap a picture.
Calls to the county Health Department brought the dismaying news that county pollution regulations do not apply to interstate railroads. The federal Clean Air Act of 1963 and subsequent rulings had pre-empted state and local governments from adopting regulations relating to the control of diesel locomotive emissions and given the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the authority to set them.
In 1997, the EPA promised that the “preemption regulations will not have any adverse impacts on the environment because of EPA’s aggressive control program that is designed to achieve the maximum possible environmental benefits.” In 2008, it unveiled tighter emissions regulations for locomotives to be manufactured — or rebuilt — as of this year.
Meanwhile, the existing fleet of older locomotives continues to add to our air quality burden. According to the Respiratory Health Association, locomotive diesel exhaust “contains more than 40 toxic air contaminants, carcinogens, ozone smog-forming compounds and fine particulate matter.”
In fact, emissions from all diesel-powered vehicles and tugboats account for nearly half of all nitrogen oxides and for more than two-thirds of all particulate matter emissions from U.S. transportation sources.
Locomotive pollution in Pittsburgh has a long history. In the late 19th century, high-sulfur bituminous coal replaced anthracite and wood as railroads’ primary fuel. Coal also became their largest single item of revenue tonnage. Dense smoke from railroads created a serious urban air quality problem and an annoyance for railroad passengers.
Smoke was a sign of poor combustion and fuel waste, so railroads had an incentive to control it. They often held education and training programs in smoke prevention for engineers and maintained corps of inspectors to report on smoking locomotives. Still, smoking locomotives remained a chronic problem.
In 1941, the city passed a stringent smoke control act limiting the dense smoke that locomotives and other polluters could emit. Railroad management characterized the law as imposing unrealistic and costly limits on their operations. When in 1943 the Legislature passed a law empowering the county to regulate smoke, the railroads used their political clout to win exemption.
Four years later, with the Pittsburgh Renaissance underway, enforcement of smoke control became a prime goal of a civic coalition. Railroads were a prime target, and two state House members introduced the so-called Fleming-Barrett bill giving the county commissioners jurisdiction over railroad smoke. The bill was part of the “Pittsburgh Package” — 10 proposals aimed at helping the city and county governments modernize operations and address major problems.
The railroads reneged on a promise not to oppose the bill, and the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad led the fight. A persistent Pittsburgh story holds that financier Richard King Mellon, a major figure in the Renaissance and a director of the Pennsylvania, called the railroad’s president and demanded it back down. No doubt Mellon was a key figure in the situation, but so was a broad public-private coalition that included U.S. Steel President Benjamin F. Fairless, Mayor David Lawrence, county Commissioner John J. Kane and Gov. James Duff. In the end, the railroads gave up.
The county regulations undoubtedly helped reduce locomotive smoke, but the most significant improvement was caused by the rapid conversion of Pittsburgh railroads from steam to diesel in the 1950s.
2015, however, is not the 1950s, and our knowledge of air contaminants and our ability to measure and regulate them have vastly increased.
Engineers and scientists today realize that emissions from diesel locomotives — and diesel engines in general — are extremely damaging to air quality. The implementation of EPA’s revised emissions regulations for new or rebuilt diesel locomotives will produce improvements, cutting particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions from these engines by as much as 90 percent and 80 percent, respectively, over time. What actions can be taken, however, to control emissions from older locomotives?
For several years, the Group Against Smog and Pollution and Clean Water Action have campaigned to reduce pollution from all diesel vehicles, especially idling school buses. They have made significant advances in this regard, but more needs to be done — with a variety of pollutants — if Pittsburgh is to improve its poor air quality ranking among U.S. cities.
Are there any lessons that can be learned from Pittsburgh’s earlier experience in eliminating air pollution from coal-burning locomotives? One is the significance of the powerful public-private partnership led by Lawrence, Mellon and other civic leaders in driving Pittsburgh smoke control over the opposition of the railroads and other corporate polluters.
Is such a coalition possible today? In 2011 the Heinz Endowments launched the Breathe Project, a broad coalition of individuals, organizations and businesses seeking to improve Pittsburgh air quality. The campaign has had some success and is working hard to deal with specific air-quality issues, but it has not been able to generate the public involvement and enthusiasm that marked the smoke control movement of the Renaissance.
The shift from steam to diesel locomotives showed how technology and fuel substitution affect pollution control. Are such innovations possible today? One option is the GenSet locomotive.
According to Union Pacific, the GenSet offers a better “emissions profile” than other locomotives because it uses “multiple, smaller diesel engines and generators instead of one large single engine.” One GenSet locomotive is operating at CSX’s Demller yard at McKeesport. More of them could improve the area’s air quality.
Another possibility involves the substitution of natural gas and liquefied natural gas for diesel or the transition to a combination of fuels. Such changes not only would reduce emissions but yield a cost savings because of falling natural gas prices. General Electric spokeswoman Jessica Taylor last year noted that natural gas “may revolutionize the industry much like the transition from steam to diesel.” It is worth noting that General Electric drove that 1950s transition.
A further approach is to emphasize the human factor. As one railroad official said long ago, “no factor has so important an influence over the control of smoke as the manner in which [the engine] is fired by the fireman and operated by the engineman.” Railroad managers today from CSX and other railroads are aware that employee training is important in terms of properly operating and maintaining the technology under their control.
Yet, air quality violations by locomotives do occur, whether produced by human or technological failure or a combination of the two.
It is clear that further effort on the part of railroad management is required if Pittsburgh’s air quality is to be improved. Michael J. Ward, CSX Chairman and CEO, has noted that “safety and the protection of human health and the environment are fundamental to CSX’s management principles and good business practice.” If he means this, we can expect to see the elimination of emissions from CSX locomotives.
Joel A. Tarr (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Richard S. Caliguiri university professor of history & policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
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