Clearing the Air: High-Speed Rail Construction Is a Dirty Business

Clearing the Air: High-Speed Rail Construction Is a Dirty Business
April 2019 construction between Wasco and Shafter. Photo by Tom Frantz

By Tom Frantz

Readers may have noticed recent high-speed rail (HSR) construction in various parts of the San Joaquin Valley. The building of bridges over Highway 99 in south Fresno and over the San Joaquin River in north Fresno has been ongoing for a couple of years. Two other sections of rail bed are being laid between Hanford and Corcoran and Shafter and Wasco.

Currently, there are large gaps but in the coming years, they will be closed. Perhaps by 2023 an Amtrak train between Shafter and Madera will use this new rail line for the first time and cut its travel time between the two cities by 25% with faster top speeds and no delays from freight trains or suicides.

During recent observations of the HSR construction between Shafter and Wasco, a lot of old diesel trucks were seen delivering dirt to the site and large scrapers were moving the dirt around and belching diesel smoke. As the air district had assured the public that only the cleanest equipment available would be used for such work, some inquiries were necessary. Here is what was learned:

As with all large construction projects, a lot of diesel earth-moving machines and trucks are involved. Recognizing that this activity would increase pollution in the San Joaquin Valley, the HSR Authority made a deal with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (Air District) to mitigate that pollution.

Applying the District’s Indirect Source Rule, HSR agreed to use a fleet of construction equipment that was 20% cleaner than the state average. They followed up with a Voluntary Emission Reduction Agreement where all remaining emissions would be offset with funding for Air District incentive programs.

Incentive funds are used by the district to entice farmers to trade in old polluting tractors for new, cleaner models, or switch fossil-fuel-powered irrigation pumps to electricity. These funds are also provided to the general public occasionally to help them purchase electric lawnmowers and cleaner-burning wood stoves.

There is a lot of fine print in the agreements made between the Air District and HSR. When a joint Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was presented to the Air District Board for approval in 2014, both the air board and the public were presented with a deal that stated “[HSR would first]…reduce the project’s air quality impacts through the use of the cleanest construction and truck fleets available” and the rest of the emissions would be offset with millions of dollars for incentives funding.

It sounded like a decent deal. The description of the agreement clearly implied the off-road equipment would all have Tier Four diesel engines and the trucks would all be 2010 or newer engine compliant.

But the fine print of the MOU said otherwise. It stated, in the middle of the document, that the equipment needed to be the cleanest available “as practicable” and referred to mitigation measures in the HSR environmental review documents.

The mitigation language said that the project would use the cleanest equipment as practical and would try to be 20% cleaner than the current California average for that type of equipment. If the equipment turned out to be dirtier than expected then HSR would pay the air district some extra money to make up the difference.

So, reading the fine print showed they did not have to use the cleanest equipment available, only semi-clean equipment as practicable. My inquiries led to some checking by the California Air Resources Board and the HSR Authority of what kinds of equipment were being used at current construction sites.

It seems they found a couple of pieces of off-road earth-moving equipment that did not satisfy their vague conditions for “clean” equipment. Those issues are being remedied so slightly cleaner air from construction might result. We have to hope they keep checking regularly.

But why then was this state project not forced to use the cleanest equipment available? If necessary, brand new equipment should have been purchased for this massive taxpayer-paid construction project.

The air district says it doesn’t matter because incentive funding will make up the difference. But, although incentive funding has improved air quality somewhat, it is hit and miss. Sure, the air district claims huge reductions from these programs such as farmers trading in old tractors. But a lot of these old tractors were no longer being used.

As the massive switch was made in the Valley from row crops to permanent orchards, smaller tractors were now needed and a lot of the bigger, older ones became useless. The air district incentive funding for new tractors was really not needed and became a gift horse to farmers. The program has failed because a lot of these old tractors were not being used as much as assumed by the air district.

It makes more sense to get all possible emission reductions from the construction project directly rather than rely on a sketchy incentive program to make up the difference. Incentive funding certainly doesn’t reduce the direct impacts of construction pollution when it takes place next to low-income communities.

We expected better of everyone involved.


Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ), he serves on its steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. The CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improving the health of Californians. For more information, visit


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