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Environmental Activists Say Railroad's Plan To Reroute Train Cars Will Degrade Air Quality

Gene J. Puskar
Railway workers work to clear a mudslide from the Norfolk Southern Railway on April 8, 2014. A swath the size of a football field tore loose from the face of Mount Washington, disrupting traffic along the line.

The Breathe Project is holding a meeting Thursday night to discuss how the rerouting of rail traffic might impact air quality north of the Monogahela River.

Norfolk Southern Railway wants to modify its Pittsburgh line to allow train cars to transport taller loads. Currently the railway’s Mon Line, which runs south of the river, carries taller freight.

Norfolk Southern said this change simply shifts rail traffic from one part of the Pittsburgh area to another.

But Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, said this reroute will bring more train traffic to certain areas, like Braddock, which already have poor air quality.

“Our region shouldn’t be continually put in the position of becoming a sacrifice zone so that others can make a profit,” said Mehalik.

Norfolk Southern spokesperson Rudy Husband said instead of one train an hour, communities will now have roughly two trains an hour pass through.

“We’re not anticipating anything that is going to warrant any type of mitigation measure,” said Husband. “But if the science comes back to us and says that mitigation is required then that’s what we’ll do.”

Husband said that areas along the Pittsburgh Line are less prone to landslides which makes the northern route safer. He also said shipping freight by rail is more fuel efficient and creates less air pollution than shipping by truck.

“Freight in the United States has to move somehow,” he said. “When you order something online it doesn’t just magically appear on your doorstep.”

Mehalik said people who live close to the Pittsburgh Line will still bear the brunt of this decision.

"[It's wrong] to justify the benefits by looking at a project in such a global fashion that it defines away impacts [on] communities ... in any meaningful way," he said.

During a Jan. 3 appearance on WESA's The Confluence, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said there is very little that can be done on a local level to regulate rail traffic. For example, Fitzgerald said the county health department cannot cite or fine the railroad for pollution, something the department can do with other private industries. 

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.