Long Beach City Officials, School District, Others Say EIR On BNSF Project ‘Flawed’

By Sean Belk - Staff Writer

January 31, 2012 - Strong opposition continues to mount over an impact analysis done by the Port of Los Angeles on a controversial project sought by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co.

(BNSF). Plans call for a new rail yard facility on a 153-acre site in Wilmington, bordering West Long Beach, to increase capacity and efficiency by hauling cargo closer to port docks.

Although not directly opposed to the project, Long Beach city officials sent a scathing comment letter to L.A. port officials on January 18, calling the project’s draft environmental impact report (EIR) “flawed,” and concluding that the port fails to provide adequate mitigations to air quality, noise and business impacts.

Long Beach City Councilmembers James Johnson and Rae Gabelich had originally called for the city council to oppose the so-called Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) project all together. But the council instead voted to ask for more information on various concerns with the EIR, including inaccuracies, the lack of plans for zero-emissions technologies and disregarding the potential job loss from relocating businesses. City Manager Pat West was expected to provide a final comment letter before the public comment period for the EIR ends tomorrow, February 1.

At the same time, the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education took a similar stance at its January 17 meeting, unanimously approving a resolution in opposition to the project EIR. Boardmembers indicated that the port has failed to analyze the potential impacts of the proposed rail yard that would be built a few hundred yards from public schools.

Despite the controversy, port officials have indicated that they won’t respond to any comments until the port releases a final EIR on the project, likely several months from now. Phillip Sanfield, spokesperson for the Port of Los Angeles, told the Business Journal that the procedure is standard in keeping with the EIR process. “We don’t have any plans to comment until the next phase of the EIR, when we respond to all the comments at the same time,” he said.

Project Push Back

According to John Cross, vice president of the West Long Beach Neighborhood Association, port officials recently told community leaders in a meeting that the Los Angeles Harbor Department has received thousands of pages worth of comments on the project and may not be able to release a final EIR until July or August.

After petitioning local government officials and residents to oppose the project for years, he said opposition has now shifted toward the port’s EIR, partly because of the project’s controversial nature.

“We wish [the city council] would have come out in total opposition of [the project]. But we don’t think we’ll get any group with total opposition . . . It’s just too controversial,” Cross told the Business Journal. “[Port officials] said this is the most controversial EIR they’ve ever had come through the port.” Additionally, if the port has to re-do the draft EIR, he said the project might be pushed back another year.

As more time elapses, however, Cross said the harder it may be to justify the expanded capacity, especially with cargo traffic slowing in recent months. He said the project has already been postponed a few years due to environmental issues and other concerns.

Meanwhile, advocates of the project say the new intermodal transfer facility is a way to spur the port’s competitiveness in anticipation of the expansion of the Panama Canal, which threatens to take cargo away from West Coast ports once completed in 2014.

Campaigns, such as “Beat the Canal,” supported by a coalition of union members, port advocates and others, say that such projects are imperative to sending a positive message to shippers and customers to keep port-related jobs and businesses in the West Coast.

Over the long term, BNSF officials have indicated a strong commitment to investing in the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. In a recent interview with the Business Journal, John Lanigan, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for BNSF, said the company foresees trade continuing to increase at the local ports, because of population growth, capabilities of the West Coast ports and proximity to Asia. “We will continue to invest in equipment, track and facilities over a long period of time, dependent on the continued growth in the economy,” he said.

BNSF is expected to pour more than $500 million into the SCIG project, with about $100 million going to install environmental initiatives, including all-electric wide span gantry cranes and low-emission locomotives and equipment. Although the Port of Los Angeles is conducting the EIR, the project is being solely funded by BNSF.

After being in the works for more than six years, current plans call for building the rail yard facility on a site currently owned by the Port of Los Angeles and Southern California Edison, bounded by Sepulveda Boulevard, Pacific Coast Highway, Dominguez Channel and Terminal Island Freeway.

Just four miles outside of the port complex, the facility would be built to accommodate about a dozen new railroad tracks utilizing the Alameda Corridor cargo expressway and 1.5 million annual truck trips, diverting cargo from BNSF’s current Hobart Yard in the City of Commerce.

However, a major concern brought by the city council is the required displacement of several long-time port related businesses, including California Cartage Company, Los Angeles Harbor Grain Terminal, Fast Lane Transportation, Inc. and Three Rivers Trucking.

Port officials say the new SCIG would generate about 450 direct permanent jobs at the proposed facility. But, if the port isn’t able to provide adequate “relocation sites” for impacted businesses, business representatives estimate a loss of about 1,200 existing jobs, many of which are filled by local residents. Long Beach city staff says the result would be a “net loss” of jobs.

“The City of Long Beach is very displeased with the irresponsible and cavalier approach being promulgated by this project and the City of Los Angeles,” said the city’s comment letter to the port. “ Losing jobs in these difficult economic times can force families out of their homes and cause a great deal of distress to neighborhoods.”

Opposition Grows

In the meantime, port officials are expected to spend the next several months addressing a myriad of concerns brought forward by several individuals and agencies. In addition to Long Beach city officials and school district boardmembers, other opponents to the project EIR include: University of Southern California (USC) and University of California, Los Angeles health and environmental experts, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and various groups throughout the region. All are sending letters outlining concerns with the project.

During the Long Beach school district meeting, Andrea Hricko, associate professor at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, said the port’s EIR is “full of significant flaws,” and the port should “go back to the drawing board.” Speaking for herself and not the university, she said particular matter, elemental carbon and diesel emissions are already a concern for children who grow up and go to schools near heavily congested freeways and port facilities. Adding a new rail yard facility would only compound the problem.

Additionally, Long Beach city officials said the port’s document “falls short” of meeting California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, requirements for revealing and evaluating the probable environmental impacts of “this new, extremely large, intermodal rail facility, which would be sited adjacent to many sensitive receptors and thousands of residents living nearby.”

Among other concerns, city officials point out that the port used outdated, 2005 baseline data for determining various environmental impacts, including air quality and truck routes, while methods to analyze potential noise from the new rail yard were also outdated and inaccurate. The result was that several environmental impacts were understated, while mitigations and potential emissions reductions were overstated, according to city officials.

While still opposed to the project currently proposed, Councilmember Johnson said he’s satisfied with the city council’s actions. “I think we have asked some very tough questions,” he said. “I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken. Clearly, the city council wants to see growth and wants to see the benefits that port growth brings. But it wants to do that in a way that does not impact our communities.”