Metra finds 'alarming' pollution on some trains
From Chicago Tribune:
Metra's own testing of toxic diesel exhaust inside its passenger coaches shows the transit agency's pollution problems are more extensive and worrisome than it has publicly disclosed, according to records obtained by the Tribune.
A summary of tests conducted in response to a Tribune investigation shows the highest levels of lung-damaging soot inside Metra's stainless steel cars were in outbound trains. Levels at times spiked hundreds of times above what is normally found on urban streets.
Metra's testing summary, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, shows the worst pollution generally was on trains leaving the south platform at Union Station. The highest soot levels on a single route were on a train leaving the Ogilvie Transportation Center. Higher-than-normal levels also were detected on outbound trains from the LaSalle Street Station.
By measuring soot on more than six dozen train runs between November and January, Metra provided a broader look at noxious pollution that hundreds of thousands of commuters breathe every day. The testing also sheds more light on how exposure to the dirtiest air depends on where commuters sit, and whether they are riding the train downtown or toward the suburbs.
Soot levels generally were highest inside the first car behind the locomotive, dropped in the second car and declined substantially in the last car. Moreover, levels were dramatically lower on return trips downtown using the same locomotives.
"These are really alarming numbers that mirror the pattern the Tribune found," said Scott Fruin, an environmental health researcher at the University of Southern California who studies the air pollution of commuting.
Richard Soukup, Metra's chief mechanical officer, has repeatedly downplayed the test results. During board meetings Friday and last month, he gave presentations that appeared to rely on averages of all soot levels recorded, which had the effect of masking pollution spikes and higher-than-normal averages during individual train runs.
"Everything is very, very low," Soukup said, leading several board members to question why the agency conducted such extensive testing.
The summary of Metra's own testing, which hasn't previously been disclosed, tells a different story.
In response to questions after the board meeting, Alex Clifford, Metra's new executive director, said cleaning up the agency's fleet is one of his top priorities.
"This is of great interest to me," Clifford said. "We are still working hard to find solutions to this problem."
Typical soot levels in big urban areas like Chicago and Los Angeles are between 1 and 2 micrograms per cubic meter.
But when one of Metra's oldest trains pulled out of Ogilvie shortly after 4 p.m. Dec. 13, soot levels spiked at 357 micrograms per cubic meter of air in the first car behind the locomotive and averaged 30 micrograms per cubic meter during the trip on the Union Pacific North line to Kenosha.
On the last car, both the peak and average levels were significantly lower - 31 and 3 micrograms per cubic meter, respectively. The contrast was even more dramatic when that same locomotive pushed its cars back to Chicago later in the evening. The peak and average in the first car was 9.5 and 0.5 micrograms per cubic meter. On the last car, the high was nearly 5, and the average was 0.3 micrograms per cubic meter.
Similar patterns unfolded on all of Metra's diesel-powered lines.
For instance, on Nov. 23, soot levels peaked at 241 and averaged 37 micrograms per cubic meter inside the second car during a late afternoon trip from Union Station to Aurora on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line. The peak dropped to 53 and the average to 13 micrograms per cubic meter inside the last car.
Levels again were much lower on the return trip, peaking at 26 and averaging 4 inside the second car and 11 and 3 in the last car.
In September, when the Tribune tested the air inside one of the middle cars during an outbound trip on the BNSF line, soot levels peaked at 72 micrograms per cubic meter. Levels stayed very low during the return trip from Downers Grove.
Researchers increasingly are raising alarms about soot, which can lodge deeply in the lungs and penetrate the bloodstream. Breathing even small amounts can inflame the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, studies have shown. Several studies have linked soot exposure to cancer, heart attacks, brain damage and premature death.
While the effects of short-term exposure are still being studied, scientists at Columbia University recently linked bursts of diesel soot with respiratory ailments suffered by New York high school students.
"The test results from both the Tribune and Metra demonstrate how the public can be exposed to high levels of these tiny particles," said Serap Erdal, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies the health effects of soot pollution.
The Tribune and Metra rented handheld devices that measure black carbon, or soot, a key ingredient in diesel exhaust. Manufactured by Berkeley, Calif.-based Magee Scientific, the testing equipment is similar to devices used by researchers in peer-reviewed studies that pinpointed pollution hot spots near highways, rail yards, shipping ports and quarries.
The closest thing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has to a standard for diesel exhaust is 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air, which the agency defines as a level of average daily exposure that could trigger health problems later in life.
Yet EPA officials acknowledged the agency has done little to track whether people are breathing levels of diesel pollution that exceed the safety limit. Agency scientists also have said they need to better understand the potential health effects of brief but intense exposures.
Metra is conducting more tests at the downtown train platforms, aboard locomotives and inside repair shops. Meanwhile, the Tribune investigation has prompted changes intended to help clear the air on commuter trains.
In January, the transit agency announced it is installing more efficient air filters on its train cars and switching to cleaner fuel for its locomotives. It also is upgrading more of its trains with technology that automatically shuts down the engines at the downtown stations.
A more daunting task is figuring out how to clean up Metra's aging locomotives, many of which date to the 1970s and emit more pollution than current models. The agency says it can't afford to buy cleaner locomotives and has chosen instead to overhaul the oldest engines in its fleet to keep them operating for at least another quarter century.
Working with federal, state and union officials, Metra is studying ways to add pollution controls to the locomotives or at least direct the exhaust away from its passenger cars.
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D.-Ill., sent a letter to Clifford urging him to tackle Metra's pollution problems. Said Durbin: "I understand this review is ongoing and I am interested in your plans for addressing the situation."