ACTI In The News Bezel
Clearing the Air
By: Nathan Donato-Weinstein, The Press-Tribune

What started out as a mere notion to reduce a major source of pollution locally got one step closer to realizing its potential Wednesday at Union Pacific's J.R. Davis rail yard.

And with the possibility to reshape the rail industry, it could have implications far beyond Roseville.

In the first public demonstration of technology that aims to make better neighbors of rail facilities, local, state and federal officials gathered at the Roseville rail yard Wednesday morning to see first-hand what engineers have dubbed ALECS, or the Advanced Locomotive Emissions Control System.

Designed to capture pollutants released by stationary locomotive engines, the system is being touted as a near panacea for the emissions problem posed by diesels.

"It's important to know that we are witnesses to history today, as this is the first time that this technology is being demonstrated in a railroad yard," Roseville Mayor Gina Garbolino told attendees.

Air quality and manufacturer officials say the device reduces sulfur dioxide and particulate matter emissions by 99 percent, nitrogen oxide emissions by 95 percent and "organic compounds" by 50 percent. All of those pollutants have been deemed harmful to human health, officials said.

"We know that there are thousands of premature deaths, there are hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma that are triggered (by diesel emissions)," said Wayne Nastri, administrator for the United States Environmental Protection Administration's Pacific Southwest region.

If successful, ALECS could go a long way toward eliminating a problem Placer County Air Pollution Control Officer Tom Christofk says is particularly acute locally.

"This is the largest source of emissions in the region," Christofk said of the J.R. Davis rail yard, the biggest rail yard west of the Mississippi River. "With the exception of the Oakland port, it's the largest source in Northern California."

A 2004 study by the California Air Resources Board found the UP site produced 25 tons of particulate matter annually, with idling engines responsible for about 45 percent of that.

That led Christofk and his staff to begin researching ways to mitigate the environmental impact of idling diesels. But it wasn't until Christofk read an article in a trade magazine detailing similar efforts of Rancho Dominguez-based Advanced Cleanup Technologies Inc. that efforts really got off the ground

ACTI was working on a concept to keep pollution from ships docked at port from entering the atmosphere; Christofk thought the technology could be used on stationary and near-stationary diesel engines at rail facilities.

"I had about a 20-minute conversation with (ACTI Vice President Sal Caro), told him what my thoughts were and he said, 'I'll be there tomorrow,'" Christofk said.

Eighteen months later, and the idea to modify the ship-based system has morphed into a massive, operational pollution-scrubber.

"We knew we could capture the particulate emissions of ships, and after the initial two or three meetings, we realized we could do this with locomotives," ACTI founder and CEO Ruben Garcia said.

The system consists of a cage-like superstructure under which locomotives pass and, most importantly, idle. While idling, a "bonnet" connects with the engine's smoke stack.

Emissions pass through a massive tube, which is connected to a multi-stage "scrubbing" system. The exhaust is then cooled and mixed with several chemicals and ultra-fine particles of water to extract the pollutants.

At the public demonstration, officials watched as an engine operator revved a locomotive, causing dark exhaust to billow from the engine's smokestack. After going through the scrubbing system, the unhealthy looking plume vanished. The resulting waste is collected in small tanks and then disposed of at an appropriate materials facility.

Most of the system is based on systems already in use at more traditional sites of emissions reduction, such as factories, said Brett Ruess, project manager with Tri-Mier, a Michigan company that manufactured the equipment. Modifications had to be made to accommodate locomotives on a railroad track.

"That's the nice thing about this technology; it's all industrial-based, proven technology," he said.

Placer County Supervisor Robert Weygandt and others praised the project as an example of what can happen when public agencies work together with industry.

The project is a collaboration among government air pollution agencies, ACTI, the city of Roseville and UP, which voluntarily agreed to participate in and partially fund the $1.75 million test.

"Environmental policy works best if we recognize and embrace market economics, and our market economics function more healthily if we are good custodians of our environment," said Weygandt, who also sits on the Placer Air Pollution Control District's board.

Although the project is a working system - not a prototype - it will be thoroughly tested at Roseville for about two weeks this month. UP officials are particularly interested in how much the system will interfere with rail yard operations.

If officials determine the project is functionally and financially feasible, ALECS systems could become a common sight at rail yards across the country. And the same technology is applicable to another problem - idling ships.

Indeed, the ALECS installation in Roseville isn't permanent; after testing, it will be dismantled and delivered to the Port of Long Beach, which is interested in purchasing the system to scrub the emissions of ships at berth.

That didn't stop those at the Roseville demonstration from voicing their excitement at attending the technology's inaugural site, however.

"It's exciting," Christofk said. "I think the public health is the true winner here. If this technology actually gets implemented and fielded, people living in and around these communities are going to be breathing cleaner air."

- Nathan Donato-Weinstein can be reached at

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