And after factoring in the carbon emissions from commercial and noncommercial vehicles using the district’s service roads every day, and the heating oil burned to keep houses warm in the winter months, to name just two sources of pollution, NY & A’s environmental impact begins to look like a blip on the radar screen.
“We don’t buy enough fuel to even be measured in the system,” said Paul Victor, the president of NY&A. “How could we have a negative impact on the community?”
The railroad company has come under attack from Civics United for Environmental Railroad Solutions (CURES), a newly formed coalition of major community groups with backing from elected officials who are fighting for better railroad conditions in Western Queens.
Pollution is, of course, only one of CURES’ concerns.
But in an exclusive, far-ranging interview with this paper, Victor used data on his company’s energy consumption to defend NY&A’s environmental record. He also spoke at length on a host of other issues, including noise complaints, garbage transport, and property values.
The company’s statistics are surprising, and shed new light on the debate over railroad operations in neighborhoods like Glendale, Middle Village, and Maspeth.
NY&A receives transportation contracts from companies to haul mainly building materials, construction debris, and waste back and forth from the eastern end of Long Island to shipping ports on the East River in Brooklyn. A portion of the company’s 269-mile-system of tracks runs through Western Queens, where residents have complained for years about noise, pollution, idling trains, and the stench of garbage.
While idling in the CB5 area, the diesel engines used to power NY&A’s locomotives burn under 5,000 gallons of fuel per month, Victor said.
By comparison, a company study shows that the 250,000 vehicles per day that use the LIE burn through at least 300,000 to 400,000 gallons of gas just on the two-mile stretch of the expressway that runs through the CB5 district area.
(That is a conservative estimate calculated on the assumption that cars travel the distance at an average speed of 15 miles per hour. The average speed - and therefore consumption of gas - is likely to be higher).
The area also has over 20 truck routes, and Victor noted that NY&A produces less carbon emissions than the heating furnaces of homes on a single city block.
He admitted NY&A could always do better - after all, any amount of pollution carries health and environmental risks, and railroad emissions are so low only when compared to much heavier polluters.
Still, Victor outlined ways the company is working to reduce its carbon footprint, and strongly disputed the claims made by CURES that the company is major source of pollution, calling them “baseless.”
“The pollution argument I find personally offensive,” Victor said. “I’m really angry about it.” If there’s one thing his railroad company is, he said, it's environmentally efficient.
Mary Arnold, the co-chair of CURES, insisted NY&A “is not meeting current environmental standards for their industry.”
One of CURES’ main objectives, besides fighting for improved security at rail sites and quieter trains, is for rail companies like NY&A to upgrade to more energy-efficient engines.
Victor said NY&A is in the final stages of a multi-year negotiation to secure federal funding through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Program. The funds, apparently totaling $750,000, and administered through the State Department of Transportation, would upgrade the company’s existing idling technology.
Idling is important, because while trains remain stationary with their engines running they make noise, emit carbon dioxide, and, according to residents, fill surrounding streets with the smell of garbage if they happen to be hauling waste.
NY&A trains receive safety inspections in and around the company’s Fresh Pond rail yard in Glendale before being sent on their way. While they wait, the diesel-powered locomotive engines must idle in order to warm their engine system’s 250-plus gallon water supply. (In winter months, the water supply is at risk of freezing; the engines were not designed to use antifreeze).
The complex new idling technology would use a smaller diesel engine - housed inside the larger engine system - to keep the water supply from freezing. Victor said the design would significantly reduce carbon emissions while trains idle.
After years of planning, Victor said, “we’re getting to the end of it.”
He did not say when exactly the CMAQ funds would become available, or when the new technology might be implemented, but asquale Cuomo, NY&A’s marketing manager, said it would likely take several more years.
For Arnold, the upgraded idling technology represents a good first start, but not a comprehensive long-term pollution solution. “That’s not enough,” said Arnold, who has brought the matter to the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In an October 14th response letter to Arnold, Kevin Bricke, a high-ranking official in the EPA’s Region 2 office, appears to agree, though his language leaves room for interpretation.
“Idle reduction technology is only one part of a comprehensive approach to reduce diesel emissions from locomotives,” Bricke wrote. He said engine “replacement or ‘repowering’ is the most effective option.”
Bricke pointed to the CSX Corporation, a transportation company that contracts with NY&A, and which recently committed to repowering four locomotives it uses in the Bronx. Bricke said monies for similar projects in Queens are available through the Diesel Emissions Reductions Act.
Victor said NY & A has had an initial meeting with the city about repowering its engines to run on cleaner technology.
“We've started the process,” said Victor, whose office holds views of the incoming and outgoing trains at the Fresh Pond facility.
The facility is a sprawling complex of train tracks with its headquarters off Otto Road and 68th Place. Beside several office and maintenance buildings, empty rail cars of various sizes and shapes await shipment to destinations all over the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The site is nestled alongside blocks of well-kept, mostly single-family homes, where residents have no choice but to put up with NY & A’s operations. Arnold doesn’t see it that way, however.
“Why should we be dumped on when there’s a better way to do it?” said Arnold, who, like CURES’ other co-chair, Mary Parisen, lives on the same block as the rail yard.
Victor said the residents who chose to live near an active rail corridor, and are now upset over conditions there, don’t realize the complex, highly regulated nature of the rail road industry.
He said the waste containers NY&A transports for Waste Management and other waste services companies are properly sealed in accordance to strict regulations. Every car, waste and otherwise, is subject to a vast set of mandated safety guidelines.
Victor added that the rail is the most efficient transportation method, especially when compared to truck transport. Trains can travel up to 450 miles on a single gallon of fuel, he said. Trucks go a fraction of that distance.
Residents opposed to NY&A “view the very existence of the operation here as a detriment to the value of their property and ergo their quality of life,” Victor said. That’s just not true, he said. Rail companies like NY&A “are by nature very [energy] efficient,” Victor said. “We’re such a green company.”