BNSF may have a new leader, Warren Buffet, but it's up to the same old railroad shenanigans

In an effort to push its projects through the environmental review process, BNSF has reached an all time low.  BNSF is working overtime to dispute the scientific link between air pollution from its operations and cancer.  And BNSF is urging government agencies to back away from health protective policies that require industry to minimize their air pollution levels if they want project approval. 

Last year, members of the public, including NRDC, urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the cancer risk associated with a BNSF proposed 500-acre rail yard project in Edgerton, Kansas.  Thousands of pages of comments and scientific studies were provided to the Army Corps to demonstrate the health risks associated with diesel particulate matter (diesel PM), and to request that the Army Corp take a closer look at the cancer risks posed by BNSF’s project before giving the railroad company the green light to build its facility.  (Diesel PM is a component of diesel exhaust, and is emitted by locomotives, cargo handling equipment, and heavy duty trucks that service rail yards).  I blogged about BNSF’s Kansas project in August 2009 and twice this year.

In response, BNSF hired the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH) who drafted a memo disputing studies relied upon by U.S. EPA and the California Air Resources Board that found a link between diesel PM and cancer.  BNSF gave CTEH’s memo to the Army Corps, and the agency relied upon it to declare that BNSF’s Kansas rail yard had no possibility of creating any significant impacts on the environment or public health.  This past June, Elana Shore of Greenwire provided a fascinating chronology of CTEH’s connection to industry and how the Center repeatedly concluded that “everything was fine” with respect to Chinese drywall, pollution left behind by Chevron in the Ecuadorian rainforests, oil spilled in Louisiana, and a flood of toxic coal ash in Tennessee. 

As if this weren’t bad enough, BNSF is now mounting a campaign to urge the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to roll-back health standards that aim to protect local communities from projects that increase cancer risk. 

By way of background, in November 2006, the Ports adopted a landmark Clean Air Action Plan that included a requirement that all new projects meet a “10 in 1 million” excess residential cancer risk threshold if they want approval.  In other words, all new projects must demonstrate that if one million people are equally exposed to the project’s emissions, no more than 10 of those people will be likely to develop cancer if they are exposed to its pollution for 70 years.  To provide context, EPA aims to minimize the number of people exposed to a lifetime cancer risk greater than 1 in a million.  The practical effect of the Ports’ policy is that new projects will be required to maximize their use of cleaner equipment and vehicles if they want to move forward.  This policy enables economic growth while reducing the impact of that growth on local communities.

BNSF is now urging the Ports to overturn their policy.  This week, at a joint Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach meeting, BNSF and its team of lobbyists, the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, and the Los Angeles and San Pedro Chambers of Commerce vigorously urged the Ports to overturn their “10 in a million” cancer risk policy.  This is the case even though the Ports’ policy has been on the books for four years, and a number of projects have been subject to it. 

The motives behind BNSF’s campaign are abundantly clear.  BNSF has a large, hotly contested, very lucrative project near the Ports in the environmental review process as we speak.  There can be no doubt that the company is becoming increasingly worried that its project may not meet the Ports’ health standards and that it needs a way out.

BNSF’s self-interested attempts to dispute the link between diesel PM and cancer flies in the face of reputable government and health agencies.  California identified diesel PM as a toxic air contaminant based on its potential to cause cancer and other adverse health problems, including respiratory illness and increased risk of heart disease, way back in 1998 after a 10-year scientific assessment process.  U.S. EPA classifies diesel exhaust as a likely carcinogen, and numerous other agencies and health organizations have done the same, including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organization, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

The Ports’ health risk standards were developed based on input from U.S. EPA, the California Air Resources Board, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, in addition to local universities, and environmental and community groups.

BNSF’s attempts to unravel decades of scientific studies and recent public health victories at the Ports need to stop.  The health of communities from the Midwest to the West Coast are at stake.