Sierra Club Fights|Coal Cars in Stockton


     STOCKTON, Calif. (CN) – The Sierra Club sued the Port of Stockton to try to stop a rail expansion that will send millions more tons of coal in open-top cars to San Francisco Bay for export.
     The Sierra Club claims the Port of Stockton approved the 700 Yard Track Improvement Project “without any of the environmental review required by law.”
     It sued the Port in San Joaquin County Court on June 24. The Central California Traction Co., which runs the port’s rail lines and will do the expansion, is named as a real party in interest.
     The Sierra Club claims the Port has no authority to declare the rail expansion exempt from requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.
     The Port of Stockton, in the heart of the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta, is California’s second busiest inland port. A key hub for State Route 99 and Interstate 5, it handled more than 4 million metric tons of cargo in 2014, much of it shipped on to San Francisco Bay 75 miles away. Of that, 1.7 million tons was coal. The Port is expected to handle 2 million tons of coal this year.
     Coal rail freight to the Port has increased dramatically in recent years – up from 30,000 tons in 2011 – as demand from Mexico and China has grown, while Pacific Northwest ports have begun to reject coal, and domestic demand stagnates.
     The Port of Stockton is operating at near capacity for incoming freight.
     The 700 Yard Track Improvement Project will double the port’s capacity by adding turnouts, access roads and nearly 4 miles of new track, to allow 12 trains to be received each week rather than six. According to a March 10 Port staff memo: “These additions will solve the impasse where the existing rail infrastructure is at full capacity and cannot meet the demands of our exporters shipping products to our international partners via rail.”
     But the San Joaquin Valley Air Basin, which includes Stockton, is already severely polluted. Twenty-eight percent of San Joaquin County children have been diagnosed with asthma. Stockton is the 12th most-polluted city in the nation for particulate matter, and the EPA considers it an “extreme nonattainment area” for ozone and particulates.
     The area around the port is largely populated by low-income minorities, including African Americans, Asians and Latinos. “The health of the community is already severely compromised by Port operations, and nearby transportation corridors and industrial activities,” the complaint states.
     Worse, coal “is usually shipped in open-top diesel trains, which release large quantities of soot and coal dust,” which contain lead and arsenic, according to the complaint. And the coal sits in uncovered piles on Port grounds until it is loaded into cargo containers.
     “San Joaquin County residents suffer from chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes at greater rates than other California residents. These burdens cost $135 million in asthma-related hospitalizations and $6 billion in annual costs to the economy,” the complaint states.
     The Sierra Club claims that coal sheds 200 to 2,000 pounds of coal dust per car per trip as it comes into the port in open rail cars that can stretch a mile long.
     Expanding the Port’s rail lines to accommodate coal runs contrary to Gov. Jerry Brown’s April executive order requiring the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, the Sierra Club says.
     It adds: “Further, Joint Assembly Resolution 35 urged Governor Brown to inform neighboring governors in Washington and Oregon of the health and climate risks associated with exporting coal to countries with air quality regulations less stringent than those in the United States.”
     The Sierra Club wants the exemption from CEQA voided, and approvals of the project withdrawn until the Port complies with CEQA.
     It is represented by Irene Gutierrez with Earthjustice in San Francisco.

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