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Freight yard expansion could pose lung hazard

Environmental PollutionConservationNorfolk Southern CorporationHomesMedical Research

With a massive freight yard expansion backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel poised to bulldoze the northeast corner of Englewood, a new analysis suggests the project would substantially increase lung-damaging pollution in a neighborhood already plagued by high rates of asthma.

Based on information provided by Norfolk Southern about diesel-powered locomotives, trucks and equipment at its expanded freight yard, the analysis by the nonprofit Environmental Law and Policy Center found that worrisome levels of soot could spread several blocks beyond the site.

The group used a computer model developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine that soot from the additional diesel exhaust would exceed a federal safety limit in an area bounded roughly by 43rd and 63rd streets on the north and south, and by State and Halsted streets on the east and west.

Closer to the rail yard, soot levels would be more than five times higher than the EPA's "significant impact level," which the agency defines as an amount that could trigger a violation of federal air quality standards for the surrounding area.

Armed with the data, community activists are mounting a last-ditch stand and urging the mayor's office to pressure Norfolk Southern to take more aggressive steps to curb its diesel pollution.

"Nobody should have to live with this," said John Ellis, a longtime Englewood resident who runs Providence House, an organization for low-income seniors. "As it stands now, the railroad doesn't want to spend another nickel on their project and the city isn't going to get in their way."

For more than two years, Norfolk Southern has been buying and demolishing homes just south of Garfield Boulevard to make room for the freight yard. The project will extend an existing 140-acre rail and freight operation just north of the site that handles about 480,000 freight containers a year.

The Chicago City Council has endorsed an Emanuel-backed plan that will sell 105 vacant city-owned lots to Norfolk Southern for $1.1 million. The Chicago Plan Commission could vote as soon as next month to expand a pair of tax increment financing districts to include the 84-acre freight yard, a move that would make it possible to set aside property tax revenue for the development.

The freight yard, known as an intermodal facility, is one of several on the South Side where large metal containers are transferred between trains and trucks. Virginia-based Norfolk Southern said its 10-year expansion project, to be built in phases, will create about 400 jobs and boast a regional economic impact of $1.6 billion by 2030.

Community activists and environmental groups say diesel pollution already contributes to high rates of asthma in Englewood. To prevent the expanded freight yard from making the neighborhood's dirty air problems even worse, the groups want Norfolk Southern to purchase cleaner cranes and forklifts or install diesel filters on its existing equipment.

"The pollution is oppressive at times, even before we get more trains and trucks," said Gay Chisum, an Englewood nurse who has asthma and works with community groups to identify and help others with respiratory ailments.

In an April letter to city officials, the railroad vowed to "use its best efforts" to ensure that replacement equipment meets the most stringent federal pollution standards. "That is still our position," Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman said this week.

Critics say the railroad's promise amounts to little more than buying cleaner new equipment after the old machines wear out — in some cases more than a decade from now.

Norfolk Southern also plans to install anti-idling equipment for diesel locomotives that stop at the freight yard. The equipment will be funded largely by a taxpayer-financed grant and money from an unrelated legal settlement between federal officials and the owner of a shuttered Indiana coal plant.

On Tuesday, city officials postponed a scheduled Thursday vote to extend the Englewood and 47th Street/Halsted Street tax increment financing districts to include all of the land where the freight yard expansion is to be built. City records show the districts were created to kick-start residential and commercial development; the proposed changes would clear the way for the industrial use planned by Norfolk Southern.

In an email, Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner of the Department of Housing and Economic Development, said the proposed designations are "administrative changes" that reflect the city's current plans for the land, not an attempt to make it easier for Norfolk Southern to apply for taxpayer-financed subsidies.

"No subsidies are going to the company, nor are any envisioned," Strazzabosco wrote. "The city expects that Norfolk Southern will continue to work in good faith regarding community concerns as the expansion project moves forward."

Ald. Willie Cochran, 20th, once promoted plans for a shopping center and town homes in the area but later backed the freight yard expansion. Efforts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.

Until recently, rail yards around Chicago have largely been bypassed in a decadeslong effort to curb noxious air pollution. Environmental regulators can crack down on owners of factories and power plants if they violate the terms of their air quality permits, but such permits aren't required for operators of diesel-powered trains and trucks.

Federal rules do require new diesel-powered trains, trucks and equipment to be cleaner than older models, but diesel engines can keep running for years.

The new analysis by the Environmental Law and Policy Center suggests that diesel pollution from the Norfolk Southern expansion could make it more difficult for Cook County as a whole to comply with federal soot standards. When a county fails to comply with the standard, regulated polluters face more stringent emission limits that can increase the cost of doing business.

Scientists increasingly are raising alarms about the health costs of particulate matter, commonly known as soot, that can lodge deeply in the lungs and penetrate the bloodstream. Breathing even small amounts can inflame the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, studies have shown. Other research links soot exposure to cancer, heart attacks, brain damage and premature death.

Several studies have found that diesel pollution from rail yards can pose serious health threats for people who live nearby. In April, researchers reported that children living near a large freight terminal in San Bernardino, Calif., are twice as likely to develop asthma as those who live five miles away.

Bursts of diesel exhaust also can trigger respiratory ailments suffered by schoolchildren. The Englewood pollution analysis found that 13 schools are located within the area where soot from the Norfolk Southern equipment would exceed 1.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, an amount the EPA has determined could lead to a violation of federal air quality standards.

"This community already is hurting in so many ways," said Faith Bugel, an attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "Norfolk Southern is spending money to buy land and train workers. Why isn't there money for public health in the neighborhood?"

Chapman, the Norfolk Southern spokesman, said all of its equipment meets federal standards for the model year it was built. Trucks that carry freight containers to and from the facility are privately owned and the railroad has no control over the emissions, he said.

About 1,250 diesel trucks drive in and out of the existing yard every day, according to information provided by the railroad. Another 810 are expected daily once the expansion is completed.

mhawthorne@tribune.com

Twitter @scribeguy

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