Concerns about air pollution from international trade are no longer limited to the nation’s coasts. In the town of Gardner, Kansas a proposal to build an enormous shipping operation, where trucks and trains would exchange cargo, is leading many residents to ask questions about future pollution related health effects. Bryan Thompson reports from Kansas Public Radio.
CURWOOD: This year the US is projected to import 700 billion dollars more goods than we export, and boost our enormous trade deficit even further. And to get our goods home from this global shopping spree, we are putting more and more pressure on trucking and railroads. As shippers try to meet this demand, they’re running into trouble with community and health groups concerned about the dangerous particulates from diesel exhaust at the shipping terminals. One such community is not far from the birthplace of the historic Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Bryan Thompson of Kansas Public Radio has the latest in our ongoing series "The Haze Over Trade."
THOMPSON: The town of Gardner lies just southwest of Kansas City. Nearby is a marker where pioneers in covered wagons headed west had to choose between the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. The Santa Fe Trail has always been a major shipping route, but freight moves a lot faster along the line now than it did in the days of the pioneers.
THOMPSON: This former Santa Fe mainline, now owned by BNSF, connects Chicago with the ports of Los Angeles and San Diego. Trains like this one bring goods imported from the Pacific Rim to America’s heartland. The products are in large shipping containers stacked atop flatbed railcars.
FRIZZELL: Yes, I believe those are the exact type that we’ve been talking about. They will be lifted off of those trains and put on to the trucks.
THOMPSON: That’s Gardner resident Damon Frizzell. The facility he’s referring to is a gigantic intermodal shipping operation—a huge rail yard, where containers would be off-loaded from trains, and then transferred to trucks for distribution. The facility would be surrounded by new warehouses and distribution centers. Frizzell says trucks would be coming and going virtually all the time. Lots of trucks.
FRIZZELL: When it is fully developed it will then be approximately 59,700 truck trips per day, is what the estimate we’ve seen is.
THOMPSON: The city takes issue with that number. Community Development Director Fred Sherman says opponents of the facility are misinterpreting the findings of a recent traffic study.
SHERMAN: The NSF has projected their ultimate operation is over a million lifts a year. A lift is either a container from a truck to a train, or a train to a truck. And doing the math, kind of taking a million divided by the work days, comes out to about 4,000 trucks a day. When you put 12 million square foot of warehousing plus intermodal facility, it’s going to be in the neighborhood of 5,000 trucks a day out of that 59,000 trips.
THOMPSON: That’s still a lot of truck traffic. It works out to almost four trucks a minute, every minute of every day. Dorine Graceffa is concerned about the amount of diesel exhaust the trucks and trains will spew into the air.
GRACEFFA: I have to move. I am not going to allow my child to get sick, and I can’t afford to pay more medical bills if this comes here.
THOMPSON: Graceffa’s 14-year-old son, Vincent, has severe asthma. His doctor is concerned that the condition will be aggravated by the exhaust fumes from the trucks and trains. Graceffa is not just talking about moving to a different house. She says they’d have to leave Gardner altogether. That’s because Vincent’s high school is less than a mile from the shipping facility—and the prevailing wind would carry the exhaust toward the school.
Diesel exhaust plays a significant role in the formation of ground-level ozone. It’s also a major source of ultra-fine particles in the air. William Barkman directs the Center for Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Kansas Medical Center. He says those particles are a growing health concern.
BARKMAN: We don’t know exactly what the mechanism is for those particles causing increased cardiovascular mortality from air pollution. We just know it happens. And in terms of the lung effects of it, obviously if you’re getting more dose in the lung, the lung has to deal with it and has the potential to cause a problem, especially if you have an underlying condition.
THOMPSON: Barkman says the level of risk posed by diesel exhaust is directly related to the concentration of ozone, fine particles, and other pollutants in the air.
BARKMAN: We know there can be health effects. The simplest thing to do would be to start looking at what are the levels and where do they compare against standards. You can do modeling based on the number of trucks or the number of engines or whatever.
THOMPSON: But that kind of modeling hasn’t been done yet and it’s not clear when it will be. Clark Duffy, who oversees air quality for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, says the new facility may not even require a permit.
DUFFY: What we have been in discussions with were linked to Northern Santa Fe is to make sure that they use all of the best management practices to develop a state of the art facility that has the absolute minimum air pollution that can be in that type of a facility.
THOMPSON: Duffy says the state will wait and see if there’s a problem. Officials plan to monitor emissions from the site.
DUFFY: We can say that only certain vehicles that meet certain environmental standards within their engine components or have low sulfur fuels are allowed to enter the facility. There are a lot of techniques that we can use to improve air quality.
THOMPSON: Duffy says moving the railroad’s current intermodal operations to Gardner should actually reduce pollution in Kansas City, even though the wind will tend to carry pollution from Gardner in that general direction.
KALB: We want to be a part of the solution to the air quality issues in the greater Kansas City area and I think we can help do that.
THOMPSON: That’s Skip Kalb, the railroad’s director of Strategic Development. The company points out that trains are much more fuel efficient than trucks. Greater reliance on trains results in fewer trucks on the highways, and lower overall emissions. But many Gardner residents aren’t satisfied with such promises. Yard signs all over town bear bold, red letters reading "no intermodal". Several people wore white T-shirts with that same message at a recent meeting of a committee formed to advise the city council about the proposed facility. When the leader of the opposition, Claude Hobby, was given a chance to speak, the audience of 500 in the high school gymnasium left no doubt where they stand.
HOBBY: These people here tonight continue to say ‘no intermodal.’ We mean that. They should be included in the decision making process, not excluded. We do not want this. We continue to say it does not have to be a done deal.
[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE AND CHEERING]
THOMPSON: It may not be a done deal, but federal law gives railroads a lot of authority to conduct rail operations on land they own. That makes it an uphill battle for people trying to stop development of these big shipping facilities in Gardner or anywhere else, for that matter.
For Living On Earth, I’m Bryan Thompson.
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