Editor’s note: In Chicago, communities of color are in close proximity to many of the city’s rail yards. And with the trains comes diesel pollution. The Reporter recently wrote about how Norfolk Southern is invoking eminent domain to buy up homes to expand its rail yard in Englewood. We think it’s important to look at the health consequences of living near the facilities, so we’re republishing a January 2010 Reporter investigation about the impact of diesel pollution.

On a crisp late afternoon in November, pickup basketball and a softball game are going strong in Cicero’s Hawthorne Community Park. Nearby, a young girl plays in a yard, chasing a border collie with a plastic rake. The sounds of laughter and sports are underscored by a steady rumble, punctuated by loud honks and mechanical gasps. These are the sounds of the Cicero Intermodal Facility across the street, where giant cranes shift cargo containers between trains and trucks 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s one of the largest freight transfer points in the country’s largest rail hub–”one-third of U.S. rail freight passes through Chicago, and more rail freight passes through Illinois than any other state.

To the southeast of Hawthorne Park, one can see the twin smokestacks of the Crawford Generating Station coal-burning power plant. The plant has been the focus of local and national attention regarding the health risk posed by emissions of particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and other contaminants. But few people realize that the Cicero rail yard might be as much of a health risk as the coal plant to the surrounding largely Latino, low-income population.

Diesel exhaust from locomotives, trucks and other rail yard equipment is a likely carcinogen and contains similar components found in coal-burning power plant emissions: particulate matter, smog- and particulate-forming nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and other toxic compounds. Diesel exhaust can be of particular concern since it is emitted close to the ground and contains more of the ultrafine particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and cross into the blood stream.

According to a Chicago Reporter analysis, residents within a half mile of the Cicero and other Chicago area rail yards could suffer a cancer risk more than 10 times higher on average than people four miles away.

Residents near rail yards would also be expected to suffer asthma attacks and other respiratory and cardiac disease–” and premature death–”at a higher rate. L. Bruce Hill, a senior scientist for the national advocacy group Clean Air Task Force, said cardiac disease is an even bigger concern than cancer, since particles from the exhaust can get into the blood stream and cause inflammation. “There’s no safe limit for particles,” he said. “Particulate is the most hazardous common pollutant in the air, and diesel trains, buses and trucks really release it where you breathe it.”

More than 37,000 rail cars move through the Chicago area each day, carrying a wide range of commodities including coal, gravel, cement, automobiles, oil, gas, lumber, fertilizer, paper, asphalt, metals, minerals and shipping containers stuffed with all manner of consumer goods. According to the CREATE initiative, a partnership between the city and state governments, Amtrak, Metra, and freight rail companies, demand for rail transport through Chicago is expected to double in the next 20 years.

And the ill effects of such rail traffic are felt by nearby residents. The Reporter analysis shows that about 57,000 people–” a majority of them minority–”live within a half mile of Chicago’s 15 biggest “intermodal” rail yards, where shipping containers are transferred between trains and trucks or ships.

John Paul Jones, chairman of the Sustainable Englewood Initiatives, said residents of Englewood–”a low-income, African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side–” have been concerned for their health since CSX Corporation opened a new rail yard a decade ago on the site of old rail tracks around 59th Street and Damen Avenue. Residents are worried both about the diesel exhaust from idling trains and coal dust blowing off uncovered trains. “The soot comes into their homes. People have family members who have died of cancer,” Jones said.

There was opposition when CSX unveiled plans for the new facility. Ultimately, a community benefits agreement was drafted, stipulating that CSX pay about $300,000 a year to the city, which then allocates the funds to residents for home repairs or other projects. Jones said community groups, rather than city officials, should control the funds, and that they should be spent on protecting people from air pollution.

Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, said that CSX and other rail companies could do more to reduce the emissions, noting that Chicago buses switched to cleaner fuel several years before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rules forced them to do so.

CSX officials said that at the Englewood yard, and in general, they have taken great steps to reduce their emissions and said they are bringing structural and landscaping improvements to an otherwise decrepit, vacant swath of land and employing 50 local residents.

Carl Gerhardstein, CSX’s environmental systems director, said the company is also in the process of installing pollution controls on all its locomotives and buying newer, cleaner locomotives. “We really are committed to reducing our impact,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of upgrades to reduce emissions on our fleet, and we continue to do more.”

Steven Forsberg, spokesman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, echoed Gerhardstein’s point. “The rail industry already invests a greater percentage–”typically 17 percent to 20 percent, compared to 12 percent or less for other industries–” of our revenues in capital investments in new equipment, technology, infrastructure and facilities than any other industry in the economy,” he said. “We have even gone so far as to invest in promising experimental technologies, such as the hydrogen fuel cell locomotive we have recently been field testing in Los Angeles.”

In California, rail yards have long been targeted by government authorities and environmental groups as major sources of debilitating air pollution. In recent studies, the California Air Resources Board quantified fine particulate emissions at seven intermodal yards and estimated the correlated increased risk of cancer.

In 2005, the yards studied had between 200,000 and 1.3 million “lifts”–”the measure of how many times a cargo container is moved. The board found that residents within a half mile of rail yards would face a cancer risk of 50 to 250 in 1 million people, with the bigger yards creating the bigger risks. By four miles away, chances dropped to less than 10 in 1 million for most yards, meaning residents within a half mile of these rail yards had cancer risks five to 25 times greater than those four miles away.

According to a recent report by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Chicago area had 15 intermodal facilities that had more than 200,000 lifts in 2006, the latest year for which the data are available. The Reporter analysis shows that, on average each of the 15 yards recorded nearly 375,000 lifts that year–”topped by more than 900,000 lifts at the CSX facility in Bedford Park. The Cicero yard recorded 533,000 lifts, while the Englewood yard had 217,000.

The average number of lifts recorded at the 15 yards puts them closest to the Union Pacific Railroad’s Commerce Yard in California–”which had 345,000 lifts a year. Residents within a half mile of the Commerce facility faced a cancer risk of 100 per 1 million people. Four miles away from the yard, the number dropped to less than 10 per 1 million.

The Bedford Park yard was closest to the Union Pacific’s Intermodal Container Transfer Facility/Dolores facility in California–”which had 750,000 lifts. People within a mile of the Union Pacific’s facility were estimated to suffer 100 cases of cancer per 1 million people, but the number went down to 25 cases for people within two miles.

The locomotives that haul shipping containers from China, coal from Wyoming, ethanol from Iowa and countless other commodities through the Chicago area burn a much dirtier diesel fuel than trucks, containing up to 500 parts per million sulfur, whereas trucks since 2006 have been limited to fuel with 15 parts per million sulfur.

The EPA has listed diesel exhaust as a likely carcinogen and says pollutants in diesel lead “to serious public health problems that include premature mortality, aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and aggravation of existing asthma, acute respiratory symptoms and chronic bronchitis.”

“It’s a combination–”you’re not just getting one bad thing; you’re getting lots of bad things,” said Janice Nolen, American Lung Association’s assistant vice president for national policy and advocacy. “The more we learn, the worse it looks. It can shorten lives by months to years, not just for old people and infants. It can cause asthma attacks, cause people with lung disease to have real trouble breathing; it’s linked to heart attack and stroke. The pollution from some of these sources has been associated with children having less lung growth.”

Chicago is already one of the nation’s worst areas for diesel pollution. The Clean Air Task Force projects that, in 2010, Cook County residents will suffer 540 premature deaths, 707 nonfatal heart attacks, 11,459 asthma attacks and 67,603 lost work days each year because of diesel emissions, from trucks, ships, construction machinery and trains.

A 2006 report called “Smokestacks on Rails” by the Environmental Defense Fund, a New York-based nonprofit, estimated that locomotive emissions would be responsible for more than 3,000 premature deaths, more than 4,000 nonfatal heart attacks, more than 60,000 cases of acute bronchitis and exacerbated asthma in children nationwide. It noted this is of particular concern in places like Chicago that are regularly out of compliance with national standards for particulate matter and ozone. The report estimated that in 2002, Chicago-area locomotives emitted 23,000 tons of nitrogen oxide–”the equivalent of 25 million cars–”and 792 tons of particulate matter.

But railroad industry officials are quick to point out that rail is a more efficient and overall more environmentally friendly mode of transportation for both goods and people than trucks, planes or cars. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway says each of its 6,700 locomotives nationwide moves as much freight as 280 trucks, carrying a ton of freight 423 miles on just one gallon of fuel. “We know that for the whole nation, railroads carry more tonnage than any other source and have the smallest percent of emissions,” Forsberg said.

Forsberg added that his company has received the highest score for environmental performance under the EPA’s Smart- Way program and is investing heavily to install idling reduction technology on all its locomotives, with about 70 percent already outfitted.

But rail emissions are not spread evenly across the country. While a train chugging over the open prairie has a minimal health impact, neighbors of rail yards get constant and large doses of diesel exhaust.

The Chicago metro area’s major rail yards are primarily near minority neighborhoods on the South Side, including Back of the Yards, Brighton Park, Englewood, Roseland and south suburban Bedford Park. Several mostly white, solidly middleclass suburbs also host large rail yards, including Schiller Park, Northlake and Willow Springs, a community with one of the region’s largest rail yards: a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway facility that handles freight from a nearby UPS site.

Areas surrounding rail yards were generally not immigrant or minority neighborhoods when the rail yards were built; many would not even have been inside the city when they were constructed. “Transportation facilities don’t control how close residences are built [around rail yards]–”the cities do,” Forsberg said.

Martha Jungenberg, program director of Special Service Area 13, which provides services like security and landscaping to businesses in the stockyards strip of Back of the Yards, said rail is crucial to the area’s economy, with companies locating there to make use of rail spurs backing up to their warehouses. She lives nearby in Bridgeport and says many local businesses are annoyed by trains blocking roads but are not aware of the health effects.

“Rail is definitely needed but it should be cleaner,” she said. “[Rail companies] probably do have the money to do whatever they need to to be responsible, so I think they should do it.”

So what can be done to make rail yards cleaner? EPA rules passed in 2008 mandate locomotives burn cleaner fuel starting in 2012 and require cleaner-burning engines for new locomotives starting in 2015. But the strictest EPA rules don’t apply to existing locomotives–”many built decades ago and still going strong. “It will take a long time” for the rule to make a difference, said the American Lung Association’s Nolen. “These things don’t get turned over frequently, these engines last for a long time.”

Urbaszewski of Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago said rail companies could voluntarily do various things right now to significantly reduce their emissions. “There’s some low-hanging fruit–”and fruit higher up the tree as well,” he said. “The easiest things to do are to use the cleanest fuel possible and limit idling. Locomotives aren’t really required to use cleaner fuel until 2012, but it is widely available now.”

Urbaszewski’s group and its partners in the clean air movement have been pushing rail companies to voluntarily replace dirty old locomotives with cleaner new ones, and with Citizen Action/Illinois they have encouraged companies to apply for federal funds to help cover costs, including through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality federal program.

Meanwhile, CREATE members have drafted an elaborate plan to increase rail infrastructure and reduce rail bottlenecks and related highway traffic by separating tracks from streets or adding new tracks. This should reduce both highway and locomotive emissions, since cars, trucks and trains would all spend less time caught in traffic, said Emily Tapia-Lopez, transportation associate for the Metropolitan Planning Council.

“It’s really about looking at the problem in a holistic manner, looking at transportation as a comprehensive strategy, not in separate silos,” she said.

Andrea Hricko, associate professor and director of community outreach and education for the Southern California Environmental Heath Sciences Center at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, thinks Chicagoans need to pay closer attention to the issue.

“Much more attention needs to be paid to reducing emissions at existing rail yards and ensuring that new rail yards are not built near homes and schools,” she said, noting that California community groups have been struggling with this issue for years.

Community activism in California has played a significant role in shaping policy and pushing for railroad industry changes. In fact, the Air Resources Board studies were conducted largely because of pressure from groups concerned about rail yard pollution affecting minority neighborhoods.

Jones said a similar approach is needed on Chicago’s South Side. “We have so much else going on in Englewood, it’s not a top priority,” he said. “But we need to make it a priority.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and lecturer in the journalism graduate program at Northwestern University, where she heads the Social Justice & Investigative specialization.