Friday, September 10, 2010

The Environmental Injustice of the Alameda Corridor

Source: Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach together are the largest port complex in the nation and moving all of that freight isn't easy. That's why the Alameda Corridor freight railway was built. Anti-car advocates often promote such freight railways as positive alternatives to expanding expressway capacity that would also benefit people in cars at the expense of the environment. However, we should take a look at who bears the brunt of the pollution from these diesel railways. Surprise surprise, it's people of color.

Luckily, some researchers have already done just that. In a study called An Analysis of PM and NOx Train Emissions in the Alameda Corridor, CA, Sangkapichai and others note the following:
The Alameda corridor provides a crucial rail link for moving freight in and out of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, also known as the San Pedro Bay Ports (SPBP). While the benefits of this trade are enjoyed by the whole nation, the associated air pollution costs are born mostly by the people who live in the vicinity of the Alameda corridor and the two freeways (the I-710 and the I-110) that serve the Ports. Although they are more energy efficient than trucks, trains contribute heavily to regional air pollution; in addition, rail traffic in the South Coast Air Basin is projected to almost double in the next twenty years [. . .] The affected population is mostly Latino or African American" (p. 1).
Here's another study on the same topic.

This is a good example of how conventional environmentalism and environmental justice differ in their perspectives. Conventional environmentalism views the freight railway as positive because it is more efficient than moving the same freight by truck. Environmental justice sees the freight railway as problematic because its pollution is concentrated in communities of color. Both sides have a point.

Anyway, just something to think about next time you pick an imported product off the shelf. It's not only causing pollution, it's causing racist pollution.


  1. One of my favorite places to bicycle is through Skagit County, Washington, on the coast north of Seattle. Inland is all farmfields, until you get almost all the way to the coast. One of the largest oil refineries in the region is right there next to the casinos of the reservation. Every time I pass by there on my way out to the ocean, I think about the significance of this co-location.

  2. The Alameda Corridor should be electrified, as should pretty much all of our rail infrastructure beyond the extremely expensive routes that cross the vast deserts of the west, headed to Chicago. Trains that don't have to generate their own power are quieter, quicker and much better neighbours.

    Of course, that wasn't your larger point, but it's still true.

  3. Electrifying it in combination with a plan to generate the electricity from clean and renewable sources does seem to be the ideal way to resolve the environmental issues.

  4. Without the Alameda Corridor, all that freight would be sent by truck on the freeways, mainly 710 and 110, which also pass thru poor communities and communities of color. 100 diesel trucks produce more pollution, noise and disruption than 1 diesel train.

    I'd love to see freight electrified, but even diesel freight trains are much better for local communities than the alternative.

  5. Diesels are frighteningly dirty, it's astonishing that electrification of this and the other major freight corridors has been sidelined for so long. California's clean power plants are orders of magnitude cleaner than a the pollution from a single diesel locomotive---there's really no comparison. You could literally power hundreds of electric locomotives using our existing natural gas power plants with less harmful pollution than a single diesel locomotive. Even looking at electricity from the dirtiest power plants in the country, electric locomotives still net out to being at least an order of magnitude cleaner and less toxic than diesel locomotives.