Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Environmentalists dispute report on Johnson County IM terminal

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Environmental pressures are mounting on BNSF's proposed freight center in Johnson County, Kan., with experts saying it would contribute to the region's already serious air pollution problems, according to The Kansas City Star. Air-quality experts at the Mid-America Regional Council are suggesting that diesel emissions from the massive rail project near Gardner would worsen ozone levels, which already violate federal standards.

MARC is challenging an initial federal conclusion that the only serious pollution issue from the freight hub would be dust kicked up from vehicles using the site. MARC officials say diesel emissions from the rail yard would increase the level of fine particles of pollution. Smaller pollution particles are considered more hazardous because they can enter the body easier and cause respiratory problems.

The air-quality issues were contained in public comments submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is deciding whether to give the sprawling 418-acre rail hub the environmental clearances the project needs to proceed. MARC is among several groups that have expressed concern about the environmental effects of the project.

BNSF has said that a preliminary environmental report done by the Corps shows that ozone-threatening emissions related to the rail yard would decrease substantially in the hub's first two decades of operation. The railroad contends the project won't result in "significant changes to ozone-causing emissions in the greater Kansas City area."

BNSF has said it was taking steps to reduce pollution. The railroad has said that locomotives and trucks won't idle as much at the proposed Gardner site and that it plans to use cranes powered by electricity, not diesel fuel.

But in a letter sent to the corps last month, the MARC experts said increased truck and locomotive traffic would contribute more hazardous pollutants downwind of the greater Kansas City region. The experts noted that diesel exhaust includes fine particles that can aggravate asthma, cause irregular heartbeats and possibly lead to early death to people suffering from heart or lung disease.

The BNSF project "is introducing that kind of pollution to an area that doesn't have that kind of pollution other than from the interstate," said Amanda Graor, a senior air quality planner at MARC.

The BNSF rail yard has come under fire from area residents and environmentalists nationwide. Last month, a few hundred residents turned out to hear a panel of national environmentalists talk about the project's health risks. The forum came weeks after the Corps of Engineers issued a report saying that the rail yard would have some moderate to significant adverse effects on air quality, traffic and streams, but the railroad has plans to reduce any impact. The report found that a person had a better chance of contracting cancer in a typical lifetime than from pollution from the rail yard.

Environmentalists fought back in the public comment period, which ended Aug. 16. They said federal regulators underestimated the number of trucks that would use the hub and the hub's level of pollution. They said that the corps didn't fully assess the cancer risk and that the corps' predictions of diesel emissions were much less than what has been generated at rail projects elsewhere.

MARC, meanwhile, has homed in on the region's ozone problem, which could lead to costly environmental controls that could stymie development, with the added compliance costs eventually passed to consumers. The problem is exacerbated because the federal government has lowered the bar for violating clean-air standards.

"We have a stricter standard now," said Cindy Kemper, the director of the Johnson County Environmental Department.

Kemper noted that the Gardner intermodal hub, combined with one at the former Richards-Gebaur airport near Grandview, could become an ozone concern in the short run. However, Kemper said there still was not enough information about the Gardner project to determine health risks.

"Are we concerned? We don't know enough," she said. "I don't think we can say for sure whether the facility might pose a risk or not."

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