Feds Close Loophole, Cleaner Trains on the Way

After months of pressure from UE members and other grassroots advocates, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially gave states some power to regulate locomotive emissions in early November. This ruling clears the way for California’s In-Use Locomotive Regulation to be implemented, but the fight for jobs in the green economy and clean air in rail yard communities is far from over.

Before this year, the federal government maintained it had the sole power to regulate pollution from the railroad industry. This April, the California Air Resources Board directly challenged this precedent by passing emissions-reducing regulations for locomotive engines. The country now has clarity as to whether state and local governments are actually allowed to make such rules, paving the way for safer air for rail yard workers and communities, and the creation of thousands of jobs.

According to the EPA’s website, the “regulatory revisions will preserve the ability of California to adopt and enforce certain emission standards regulating non-new locomotives and engines,” and consequently, “Other states may, in turn, adopt those same California standards.”

UE leaders praised the ruling as a victory for our health and our children’s health. “It’s about time!” said Local 1077 District 3 Chief Steward Lauren Sims. “That is excellent! My main concern is the babies. I’ve got grandbabies and they all have asthma.”

Local 1077 District 1 Chief Steward Rudolph Anthony Ward said, “This should be at the top of the list of what we’re doing. This ruling means better health and a less toxic environment.”

As Local 1177 Recording Secretary Cedric Whelchel notes, “Rail yards are basically in poor neighborhoods.” Children living near rail yards growing up are suffering from lung problems and other health effects. “If we don’t do something today, our children are not going to have a future.”

The move by the EPA is a step in the right direction, yet workers know that governmental agencies need to fully commit to serving working people, not just the top 1%. Many UE leaders, including Whelchel, see how the government is quick to regulate people as consumers, but less aggressive when it comes to the corporations who are the major sources of pollution. “You need to start with these corporations.” says Whelchel, “You have to start from the top down.”

Whelchel highlighted another irony in the government’s new ruling. When the rank-and-file railroad workers rejected their tentative agreement in 2022, the federal government readily forced them back to work. Yet, when it comes to this life-saving regulation, they are choosing to leave it up to state and municipal governments. A piecemeal approach means there is more work to do to rapidly adopt green technology and increase the demand necessary to create jobs in the emerging carbon-free economy.

“We gotta keep fighting,” said Sims, “until they actually do it.”

Workers and advocates outside of California now have a chance to demand their governments adopt similar regulation. Then follows the national task of ensuring that the railroad industry follows through by complying with the law. Not only will this be good for our health, it also means job growth. An April 2023 study by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that demand for new, green locomotives would create thousands of jobs at the Wabtec plant in Erie, PA which employs UE Local 506 members, and thousands more elsewhere in Western Pennsylvania and around the country.

In the meantime, the EPA closing this federal loophole means California will raise its emissions standards to “bring an estimated $32 billion in health savings by preventing 3,200 premature deaths and 1,500 emergency room visits and hospitalizations. Cancer risk from exposure to air toxins within one mile of locomotive operations is expected to be reduced by 90 percent.” The Green Locomotive Project aims to implement these standards nationally. Yasmine Agelidis, senior attorney for UE ally Earthjustice, said, “States and local governments are empowered to clean up locomotives so communities can breathe clean air. States should now swiftly move forward to protect their residents’ health from dirty rail pollution.”