Durbin Calls on Federal Agencies to Investigate Air Quality on Passenger Rail

[CHICAGO] – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) today sent letters to the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), asking them to review the findings of an investigative report by the Chicago Tribune which showed that Metra commuters and workers may be exposed to excessively high levels of diesel soot. Diesel exhaust contains many air pollutants, and has been linked to health problems such as cancer, heart attacks, respiratory diseases, diabetes and brain damage.


“Today, I am calling on Metra, Amtrak and federal and state officials to review and respond to these findings and to take the steps necessary to ensure the air on and around our passenger trains is safe to breathe. It is absolutely critical that we limit the risk of adverse health effects for the Chicago region’s commuters and workers,” said Durbin. “I was happy to hear that Metra has already organized a meeting with key state and local agencies tomorrow on this subject.”


“People are breathing more than half their daily dose of soot pollution while commuting no matter how they get to work,” said Joel J. Africk, President of the Respiratory Health Association. “But people making a green choice shouldn’t be endangering their health. Our antiquated transit system is harming our health and resources need to be targeted to cleaning up Metra’s antiquated trains so that people’s lives aren’t put at risk.”


The report found increased levels of air pollution in and around passenger rail cars leaving Chicago’s Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center, raising concerns about the efficacy of ventilation systems in older trains and train stations. Durbin called on the federal agencies to conduct an immediate interagency review evaluating the findings in the Tribune’s report and recommending steps necessary to reduce pollution from rail traffic in Northeastern Illinois.


“I’m asking the EPA and its trained professionals to conduct a fully scientific analysis of the air quality on these passenger trains in order to determine if the Tribune’s disconcerting findings are accurate.”


Durbin also requested that the EPA review include an analysis of other sources of particulate air pollution, such as coal-fired power plants, heavy machinery and automobile and truck traffic. The EPA has designated the Chicago area a “non-attainment” area, which means air pollution levels persistently exceed federal air quality standards. Understanding all sources of the pollution is essential to the region’s efforts to improve air quality.


Last week, the FTA awarded the Illinois Department of Transportation a $341,000 grant funded by a grant program created in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to install automatic shut-down and start-up systems in 27 locomotives in the Metra fleet. The funding was made available through the Department of Transportation’s Transportation Investments for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction (TIGGER) II and Clean Fuels grant programs, which were developed to encourage transit projects that promote the usage and development of energy efficient technologies. Metra, which intends to use the funding to retrofit locomotives operating in their train yards, estimates that by shutting down instead of idling the locomotives, the automatic systems could save an estimated 800,000 gallons of diesel fuel and reduce CO2 emissions by an estimated 80,000 tons per year.


Across the country, underinvestment in passenger rail systems has resulted in more public transportation systems running older and less efficient equipment. In 2007, Durbin asked the FTA to assess the condition of the oldest mass transit systems in the country. The resulting report found that more than one-third of the largest seven rail transit agencies’ assets are in either marginal or poor condition. The study also found that these systems are facing a $50 billion backlog in their capital equipment and systems to reach a state of good repair. Metra alone will require $7.3 billion over the next ten years in order to reach a state of good repair.


“The Tribune’s findings should be a wakeup call to all of us. We need to invest more into our aging transit systems. This year, President Obama called for an immediate $50 billion investment into our roads, mass transit and aviation systems followed by a long-term surface transportation bill, an idea that was shot down by many as “wasteful spending.” But investing in mass transit is not wasteful spending, it is an investment in the health of our environment and our economy,” Durbin said.