Publication Date 11/06/2010
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Nov. 06–Day after day, thousands of commuters are breathing high levels of toxic diesel pollution trapped in Chicago’s two major rail stations and even inside the trains they ride, a Tribune investigation has found.
Testing by the newspaper found the amount of diesel soot lingering in the air steadily increases as commuters walk deeper into Union Station or the Ogilvie Transportation Center. Levels of the lung- and heart-damaging pollution jump higher on platforms, where acrid blue clouds of diesel exhaust hover between trains, many of them built in the 1970s.
It gets dramatically worse, not better, after boarding a train. As the doors close and the locomotive pulls out of the station, Tribune testing found, the air trapped inside the stainless-steel cars contains levels of diesel soot up to 72 times higher than on the streets outside.
Pollution levels remain high during most of the trips away from the city, the Tribune found. Exposure drops sharply only after getting off the train.
The testing sheds new light on the amount of pollution many people breathe as part of their daily routine. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers diesel exhaust one of the most dangerous types of air pollution. Studies have linked exposure to a variety of health problems, including cancer, heart attacks, respiratory diseases, diabetes and brain damage.
Yet federal and state officials acknowledge they are woefully behind in assessing how breathing highly polluted air for short periods of time every day might affect a person’s health.
Air quality on Chicago’s commuter lines also isn’t expected to improve significantly any time soon. Rather than replacing its disco-era locomotives with newer, cleaner models, Metra is refurbishing a third of its aging fleet to keep them chugging for at least another two decades.
Lack of ventilation at Union Station and the Ogilvie Center also remains a problem, keeping soot and toxic gases concentrated inside stations used by more than 245,000 people every weekday.
“It’s horrible sometimes, especially at rush hour when all of those idling trains are backed into the station,” said Kurt Kreis, a technology specialist at a Loop investment bank who has been riding Metra to and from southwest suburban Orland Park for more than a decade.
Metra officials told the Tribune they are doing their best on a limited budget. Locomotives push train cars into the station so the engines stay closer to the outside air, they said, and technology soon will allow some locomotives to shut down engines automatically after a certain period to reduce idling and save fuel.
“I’d like to do more, but we just can’t with the money we have now,” said Richard Soukup, Metra’s chief mechanical officer.
Reacting to the Tribune’s findings, the agency scheduled a meeting Tuesday with federal, state and local officials.
“It is my intention to fully investigate this matter, and assure you that Metra will remain proactive in this area,” William Tupper, the agency’s acting executive director, wrote in an invitation to the meeting.
Prized for their power, durability and fuel efficiency, diesel engines power not only locomotives but also long-haul trucks, school buses and construction equipment. Researchers estimate that more than half of people’s daily exposure to diesel pollution comes during their commute, even though on average it accounts for just 6 percent of their day.
To take a snapshot of the diesel pollution Chicago-area commuters breathe every day, the Tribune rented a handheld device that measures black carbon, or soot, a key ingredient in diesel exhaust.
The testing device, manufactured by Magee Scientific, of Berkeley, Calif., is similar to ones used by researchers in peer-reviewed studies that pinpointed pollution hot spots near highways, rail yards, shipping ports and quarries.
During walks, drives and train rides, the Tribune found spikes of the pollution that far exceeded normal levels in Chicago and other U.S. cities.
For example, on one afternoon the amount of soot measured on Union Station’s south platform was 21 micrograms per cubic meter of air, a tenfold increase from the street. After the doors closed on a train bound for Downers Grove, the figure jumped to 39, and then, shortly before the end of the 23-minute trip, to 72 micrograms per cubic meter.
By contrast, normal levels of diesel soot in Los Angeles, which has long suffered some of the nation’s worst air pollution problems, are 1 to 2 micrograms.
Off the train in Downers Grove, the device registered soot levels of less than 2 micrograms per cubic meter. Other than a short burst when an eastbound train pulled into the station, levels stayed low during most of the return trip downtown.
Soot levels varied from trip to trip but always jumped dramatically as outbound trains left the city’s crowded stations. Levels spiked as high as 50 micrograms per cubic meter on a train from Union Station to Schaumburg, 46 from Ogilvie to Arlington Heights and 21 from the LaSalle Street Station to Tinley Park. (Levels on the CTA’s electric trains were consistently low.)
Pollution from diesel engines is a complex mix of toxic substances such as benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde, many of which can cause cancer. It also is filled with fine particles, commonly called soot, so small that thousands could fit on the period at the end of this sentence.
Studies increasingly are raising alarms about soot, which can lodge deeply in the lungs and penetrate the bloodstream. Breathing even small amounts can inflame the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, researchers have found. Several studies have linked soot exposure with heart attacks and premature death.
California officials estimate diesel exhaust is responsible for about 70 percent of the cancer risk people in that state face from breathing toxic air.
The effects of short-term exposure are still being studied, though scientists at Columbia University recently linked bursts of diesel soot with respiratory ailments suffered by New York City high school students.
“If you can see what you’re breathing, it’s especially bad for you,” said Scott Fruin, an environmental health researcher at the University of Southern California who has studied air pollution during commuting and reviewed the Tribune’s findings. “Even when you can’t see it, these particles are getting into our bodies and causing damage.”
The closest thing the EPA has to a standard for diesel exhaust is 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air, which the agency defines as a level of average daily exposure that could trigger health problems later in life.
Yet EPA officials acknowledged the agency has done little to track whether people are breathing levels of diesel pollution that exceed the safety limit. Agency scientists also said they need to better understand the potential health effects of brief-but-intense exposures.
Rather than trying to enforce the safety limit for diesel exhaust, government officials set separate legal standards for overall air pollution across entire counties. Federal and state regulations require cleaner factories, power plants, engines and fuels to help meet the air quality standards.
Chicago and its suburbs are chronic violators of those broader pollution standards. The region fails to meet federal soot limits, and Chicago also is the nation’s only major metropolitan area that doesn’t meet tough new standards for smog-forming nitrogen oxide, an ingredient in diesel exhaust.
Industry representatives and government regulators promise that cleaner diesel engines and fuels are on the way. But loopholes in federal rules will allow some of the oldest, dirtiest sources to keep churning out pollution for years to come, making it more difficult for Chicago and dozens of other urban areas to clean up the air.
For instance, though manufacturers must start building dramatically cleaner locomotives starting in 2015, rules adopted under President George W. Bush are far less stringent for older trains. Since diesel engines can remain on the rails and roads for decades, it will take years for people to see the full benefits of rules unveiled in 2008.
Millions of older, dirtier trucks, buses and construction equipment also will be permitted to keep operating without filters that can screen out most of the noxious exhaust.
Metra’s plans to overhaul its oldest locomotives highlight what critics say are the regulatory shortcomings of the EPA’s “clean diesel” initiatives, which agency officials hail as one of the most significant bids to improve air quality since the government ordered lead out of gasoline during the 1980s.
The rail service is spending federal stimulus money and state bond funds to overhaul 52 of its 1970s-era engines. Its rebuilt locomotives will be slightly cleaner, but new trains built to the latest EPA standards would emit 90 percent less soot and nitrogen oxide than Metra’s refurbished fleet.
Citing stagnant federal and state support and political pressure to avoid higher fares, Metra officials said that a new locomotive costs about $4 million, more than twice the amount it costs to rebuild an old one.
“Why would you ever buy a new one?” John Partelow, a Metra director from Naperville, said during a September board discussion about the locomotive project.
Top officials at the rail service say their trains, like other forms of mass transit, help the environment in other ways. Metra trains reduce tailpipe pollution by keeping more than 62,000 cars off the roads every day, the agency estimates.
There have been some successful efforts between government and industry to reduce diesel pollution by cleaning up the dirtiest equipment, buying cleaner models and persuading drivers to limit idling. The EPA estimates it has spent $60 million during the past five years to clean up diesel engines in trucks, trains and other vehicles in the Midwest.
“These efforts not only cut emissions but save fuel,” said Susan Hedman, the Obama administration’s top EPA official in the region.
But such programs largely are voluntary. For every fleet of dirty buses and trucks that is cleaned up, scores of others remain on the roads with few, if any, pollution controls.
“This is an area where the government really can make a difference,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, which helped persuade the Chicago Transit Authority to rely on cleaner diesel fuel for its bus fleet well before it was required nationwide.
“Cleaner technology is out there, even for trains,” Urbaszewski said. “We just need the money and political will to get it in all of the old trains and trucks and bulldozers and tractors still operating. Without it, people will continue to breathe this dangerous pollution.”
In the case of another notoriously sooty transit system, it took a federal lawsuit to prompt action. In August, two Boston-area agencies agreed to spend more than $2 million to settle a complaint from the EPA and the Justice Department about high levels of diesel pollution and excessive idling by the region’s commuter trains.
The agencies will install equipment to limit idling, switch to the cleanest diesel fuel before it’s required elsewhere and install cleaner engines on some of the dirtiest locomotives. One of the agencies also is spending federal stimulus money to overhaul the ventilation system at Boston’s Back Bay station, where the air is thick with diesel exhaust trapped on the platforms.
As at Back Bay, the cramped tunnels of historic Union Station just make the problem worse.
“It’s been a huge problem for years,” said Doug Davidson, a retired Metra engineer who is a national official for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union. “Since soot builds up in the engine as it idles, you get these thick, black clouds blowing out of the locomotives when they power up to leave.”
Union Station is owned by Amtrak, which shares the tracks with Metra. In response to questions, Amtrak provided a report on air-quality testing it conducted on the platforms during two days in July. The tests showed sharp spikes of diesel pollution between 4 and 6 p.m., when multiple trains are backed into the station.
But Metra and Amtrak officials said they have little control over ventilation systems designed to suck diesel exhaust out of Union Station’s train tunnels. The giant vents and fans are supposed to be maintained by the owners of eight skyscrapers that rise above the tracks.
One of those buildings is 2 North Riverside, the old Chicago Daily News building owned by Sam Zell. Zell is chairman of Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune. David Contis, president of real estate for Zell’s Equity Group Investments, said a fan at the bottom of the building’s ventilation shaft was replaced earlier this year.
In addition to spending money to keep its oldest trains running, Metra is refurbishing its aging train cars, some of which date to the 1950s. Floors will be stripped, windows replaced and seats reupholstered.
One thing will stay the same: the old ventilation systems that help trap sooty air inside the cars.
Copyright (c) 2010, Chicago Tribune
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