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US court rules diesel exhaust not hazardous waste

6 June 2012

A US federal court in California has dismissed a lawsuit by environmental groups to hold railway companies responsible for diesel particulate pollution from California railyards under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The RCRA is a statute that governs the storage, treatment, transportation and disposal of solid and hazardous waste. The court ruled that RCRA does not apply to diesel exhaust because diesel PM is not a “solid or hazardous waste” under RCRA and also because Congress intended the Clean Air Act (CAA), rather than the RCRA, to regulate diesel emissions.

The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) against the Union Pacific (UP) and the BNSF railways. The plaintiffs alleged that diesel emissions from 16 railyards across California violate RCRA because the locomotives, trucks, and other vehicles at the railyard emit diesel particulate matter which, even though emitted as a gas, has the potential to settle onto land as solid particles. Therefore, the RCRA should apply to diesel exhaust, argued the plaintiffs. In addition, the plaintiffs argued that diesel emissions from railyards remain “wholly unregulated” due to a “loophole” created by the CAA which prohibits states from regulating emissions from new locomotives and locomotive engines.

The court rejected the arguments by the plaintiffs. The judge found that the plaintiffs’ argument that diesel PM could be considered solid waste would stretch “the boundaries of the term to a point where it retains little meaning” and that applying RCRA to diesel PM would disregard the congressional intention to regulate diesel emissions through the CAA. The judge also found that the plaintiffs’ argument that railyard emissions are left unregulated due to a loophole in the CAA was “disingenuous” and incorrect. While railyards—as “indirect sources” of pollution—are not directly regulated, PM emissions from all “direct sources” such as locomotives and trucks are regulated under the CAA, explained the court.

The case was decided on May 29, 2012 by the US District Court for the Central District of California.

While diesel emissions still present a problem in areas with high concentration of diesel vehicles—for example around railyards serving large West Coast ports—California railways already operate the cleanest engines and equipment in the United States. UP and BNSF, the two major rail operators in California, signed two voluntary agreements (in 1998 and in 2005) with the California ARB to reduce diesel emissions. Under these agreements, the railways have been upgrading their locomotive fleet to the cleanest models and almost all locomotives in the state have been equipped with idle reduction technologies.

Source: Morrison & Foerster