Infrastructure & Environment

Controversial Port Rail Yard Wins Approval of L.A. City Council

The project would improve freight rail connections to the nation's largest port complex, but it could spur court challenges alleging violations of environmental and civil rights laws.
May 9, 2013

By Dan Weikel

The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday approved a controversial rail yard serving the harbor, setting the stage for possible court challenges alleging violations of environmental and civil rights laws.

The proposal to build a center for trains hauling freight from the largest port complex in the nation has raised questions about environmental justice, particularly for minority and low-income neighborhoods in west Long Beach, which would bear the brunt of the effects.

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Council members voted 11 to 2 to approve the Southern California International Gateway and certify its environmental analysis, saying that the $500-million project would bolster efficiency in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, create jobs and improve air quality in surrounding communities.

"We are at a beginning point to make things better," Councilman Ed Reyes said. "If we don't move, two, three, four years from now, we could lose our competitive edge."

Council members noted improvements at other West Coast harbors and the current widening of the Panama Canal, which could allow the largest container ships from Asia to bypass the West Coast and deliver goods to ports on the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico.

Council members Jan Perry and Bernard C. Parks voted no. They said stronger agreements are needed to ensure that environmental effects are adequately reduced in nearby neighborhoods, which include schools, parks, homes, day-care centers and housing for homeless veterans.

"It doesn't look like we've done our best to deal with these issues," Parks said. "I don't see how we can assure 35,000 to 40,000 residents that they will be safer. There are still fundamental issues that need to be resolved."

Approved by the city's harbor commission in March, the planned freight yard would be built by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. in Wilmington next to California 103, between Sepulveda Boulevard and California 1 and east of Alameda Street. The 153-acre project would be capable of handling up to 2.8 million 20-foot shipping containers a year by 2035 and 8,200 trucks a day.

The project is widely supported by chambers of commerce, labor unions, regional planning organizations, local elected officials and civic organizations.

Railroad and harbor officials say the facility will be the "greenest" of its type in the nation and employ low-emission diesel trucks, cranes, yard hostlers and locomotives. More than 1 million truck trips a year, they say, would be eliminated on the Long Beach Freeway, reducing harmful emissions, while other measures, such as sound walls and a landscaped berm, would cut noise and light pollution.

"The residents will be pleasantly surprised when they see how it operates," Roger Nober, an executive vice president at Burlington Northern, told council members.

Before the vote, David Pettit, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, threatened to sue over possible violations of state civil rights laws and the California Environmental Quality Act. The law requires thorough environmental reviews of projects and all feasible mitigation measures for adverse impacts.

Pettit said after the hearing that the National Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups also are considering filing an administrative claim with the U.S. Department of Transportation, alleging violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Opponents contend that the project will erode the quality of life in neighborhoods that have already been seriously degraded by port operations. Research shows that area residents, particularly children, now have abnormally high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, including lung cancer.

They cite the project's environmental impact report, which acknowledges that some low-income communities could be harmed.

Barry Wallerstein, the executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, disputed the project's environmental analysis and its conclusions that air quality would be improved in surrounding neighborhoods. He told the council that nitrogen dioxide from some truck and auto engines would double and exceed federal standards.

Wallerstein, who noted that he was the first AQMD official to appear before a government agency to oppose a specific project, said more measures to reduce air pollution were necessary. His views were supported by a Los Angeles County Department of Public Health representative.

Christopher Cannon, the port's director of environmental management, said the analysis showed a reduction in nitrogen dioxide if the project were to be built. Though the report indicated that the pollutant would slightly exceed federal standards, Cannon said he doubted whether nitrogen dioxide emissions would ever violate the limit.

(c)2013 Los Angeles Times

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