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VICTIMS OF DIESEL EXPOSURES

Diesel Exhaust and Chicago Union Station – Part 2 – Initial Air Quality Testing Results

Published on July 25th, 2018 by Andrew L. Hughes

In January of 2010, the Chicago Reporter first reported that commuters who ride passenger trains in Chicago are exposed to “really extreme levels” of cancer-causing diesel exhaust.  Testing performed in 2009 by the Clean Air Task Force and commissioned by the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago revealed the extreme diesel particulate exposure levels.  

Via the monitoring method used by the Clean Air Task Force, daily average exposure to diesel particulates of over 35 micrograms per cubic meter are deemed unsafe.  The 2009 testing found peak levels as high as 844 micrograms per cubic meter on Chicago Union Station platforms and 192 mg per cubic meter inside the actual station.  So this means that the workers out on the platforms and in the trains are not the only ones suffering these exposures – even the ticket agents inside the station are being exposed.  

As of early 2010, the air quality problems were attributed to the fact that Amtrak and Metra were both using dirty, high sulfur diesel fuel for their locomotives.  Old locomotives burning dirty fuel combined with Union Station’s outdated and poorly maintained ventilation system created the toxic environment. While the passengers were able to move out of the station to fresh air, the Amtrak, Metra and BNSF employees working inside the station endured chronic exposures to carcinogenic diesel exhaust.

In November of 2010, the Chicago Tribune’s environmental reporter Michael Hawthorne picked up the cudgel and published the findings of the Tribune’s own air quality testing within Amtrak-owned Union Station and inside Metra passenger cars.  The Chicago Tribune’s testing found levels of diesel exhaust inside Metra passenger cars up to 72 times higher than on the streets outside the station (meaning that Metra, BNSF and Amtrak’s onboard personnel endured significant diesel exposures even after their trains departed the filthy Union Station environment).   The passenger cars have air intakes that swallow up the dirty Union Station air and then carry it along the right of ways. Worse still, the passenger cars located directly behind pulling locomotives draw in the fresh exhaust spewing from the powerful engine. The Tribune’s air quality testing on the Union Station platforms revealed diesel soot levels that were over 20 times worse than normal levels of diesel soot found in Los Angeles, a city with some of the nation’s worst air pollution problems.

When confronted with these alarming test results, Metra officials initially stated that their hands were tied due to lack of funding.  Metra’s chief mechanical officer said, “I’d like to do more, but we just can’t with the money we have now.” While new engines spew fewer fumes, Metra was electing to refurbish its old, inefficient locomotives on the cheap.

Amtrak performed its own air quality testing in July of 2010 inside Chicago Union Station which also showed sharp spikes in diesel particulates during busy rush hour periods.  With this article, the Chicago Tribune confronted the operating railroads with alarming diesel exhaust findings that were undoubtedly longstanding. Paul Piekarski of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen verified that complaints about fumes from the trains at Chicago Union Station go all the way back to the 1970’s.  Association of American Railroad (AAR) records illustrate that the railroads knew that diesel exhaust presented a hazard to railroad employees as of the 1950’s. Despite that knowledge, multiple generations of railroad employees working inside and around Chicago Union Station suffered chronic exposures to cancer-causing diesel fumes.

In response to the Chicago Tribune article, United States Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois demanded that the railroads find a way to clean up the soot-choked stations and passenger cars.  Metra’s main concession in the days after the Tribune’s initial article was to claim that newly installed technology on some of its locomotives would automatically shut down the locomotives to reduce idling inside the station.  Metra admitted that it knew it had a problem with diesel exhaust inside the station but claimed it was unaware that diesel exhaust presented an issue inside its passenger cars. This claim is hard to believe because any passenger could tell you that the car immediately behind a pulling Metra locomotive reeks of diesel exhaust.  Either way, circling the public relations wagons, Metra promised to create a “task force” to address diesel exhaust issues. Amtrak took another tact initially and pointed the finger at the owners of the air rights over Union Station – the 8 buildings overhead that are each charged with maintaining the system of ventilation fans and ducts over Union Station.  Amtrak particularly singled out the old Post Office as a contributor to the diesel exhaust problem within Union Station.

By late-November 2010, Metra was performing air quality testing on all of its lines.  Metra clarified that mandated pre-departure brake tests require the locomotive to be running and thus it cannot always shut down its locomotives inside Union Station.  

In January 2011, Metra had begun to install air filters on its train cars.  Metra also promised to switch to a cleaner, low sulfur diesel fuel in order to cut down on diesel exhaust exposures.  The low sulfur fuel would allegedly reduce emissions by 8%. For what it’s worth, Metra could have reduced emissions by 90% if it used modern locomotives instead of the “disco-era” smokers that it relies upon. Metra’s own air quality testing revealed that the highest diesel exhaust levels were in the passenger cars departing the south platform in Chicago Union Station.  Metra “averaged” its published testing results and thus masked the enormous diesel exhaust spikes seen in previous testing. Still, Metra’s own board chairwoman said around this time, “Do you want to take a deep breath? I don’t.”

Via the Freedom of Information Act, the Chicago Tribune obtained the actual – as opposed to “averaged” – air quality results of Metra’s 2010 testing.   It turns out that Metra’s own testing on trains with pulling locomotives found diesel exhaust at levels “hundreds of times above what is normally found on urban streets.”  High soot levels were found on board Metra trains departing Union Station, Ogilvie Transportation Center and LaSalle Street Station. Despite those findings, Metra’s Chief Mechanical Officer, evidently with his head buried in a bucket of sand, claimed: “everything is very, very low.”  At the same time, Metra’s Executive Director admitted: “We are still working hard to find solutions to this problem.”

NIOSH states that there can be no safe level of exposure to a carcinogen.  The World Health Organization has declared that diesel exhaust is a known carcinogen.  While the EPA has no formal published standard for diesel exhaust exposure levels, apparently the EPA has stated that average daily exposures of 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air or greater could “trigger health problems later in life.”  Typical soot levels on Chicago city streets are between 1 and 2 micrograms per cubic meter. Metra’s air testing in the first passenger car behind a pulling locomotive found peak diesel soot of 357 micrograms per cubic meter of air which ended up averaging out to 30 micrograms per cubic meter during an entire trip to Kenosha on the North Line (i.e. 6 times more than the EPA maximum).  On a run from Chicago Union Station to Aurora operated over BNSF tracks, they found peak soot levels of 241 mg and averaged to 37 mg in the second passenger car from a pulling locomotive.

Railroads defend toxic tort cases brought by employees by claiming that the air quality inside their locomotives, passenger cars and shops is no different than the ambient air quality on a city street.  Obviously, based on Metra’s own testing, Metra will have an uphill battle making that claim before a Cook County jury. The reason there should be no “safe level” of diesel exhaust exposures is that diesel exhaust consists of many “known carcinogens”, including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, butadiene, benzene, formaldehyde and benzopyrene.  Diesel exhaust is in the same carcinogen class as mustard gas, asbestos and tobacco and yet, just in Chicago alone, hundreds of thousands of people are exposed to alarming levels of it during their daily commutes.

In the next part of this series we will discuss the railroads’ responses to the diesel exhaust problem at Chicago Union Station and within Metra’s passenger cars and follow-up test results from 2015 by a local TV station and the EPA.

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