LOS ANGELES — An environmental group sent letters Tuesday warning two of the country's biggest rail companies to prepare for a federal lawsuit if they don't undertake measures to clean up hazardous waste their facilities emit into the air from diesel engines in 16 California rail yards.
The Natural Resources Defense Council sent letters to Union Pacific Corp. and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway saying they will file a lawsuit within 90 days under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates hazardous solid waste disposal.
In what could be a precedent-setting lawsuit, the council argues that minute particles in diesel air pollution, which include lead, cadmium, nickel and other toxic elements, are solid waste. If successful, such a suit could open the door for legal action against similar air pollution sources such as ports, airports or anywhere with a lot of diesel equipment, said David Pettit, a senior attorney with the council.
"I think the reason why other people haven't tried it is on first glance you would think that the emissions are a gas and RCRA doesn't apply to gases," Pettit said. "The fallacy with that is the exhaust has two components: one is a gas and the other component is a solid and those solids will kill you if you inhale enough of them."
The railroads are major carriers of containerized cargo from Asia.
The notice, which cites rail yards across California from Oakland to San Bernardino, was also sent by environmental justice groups East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.
It accused the companies of improper disposal of solid wastes, including arsenic, cadmium and nickel.
Spokesmen for both companies did not immediately return a call and email for comment.
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