NEWSWATCH

L.A. Harbor Commission Certifies Final EIR For BNSF Railyard

Controversial Project Bordering West Long Beach Gets The Go Ahead

Joshua Silavent - Staff Writer

March 12, 2013 – Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) can now proceed with its $500 million railyard development in the harbor area just west of Long Beach. The Port of Los Angeles Harbor Commission certified a final environmental impact report (EIR) March 7 despite protests from some residents, conservation groups and public officials, all of whom vowed to continue the fight, first with appeals to the Los Angeles City Council, and then in the courts, if necessary. The harbor commission will consider approving a 50-year permit lease for the construction site at its March 21 meeting, with approval little more than a formality at this point.

BNSF’s Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) railyard is intended to provide near-dock capacity for trucks to load cargo containers onto trains for distribution. Currently, trucks transport the containers to a BNSF facility 24 miles from the ports near downtown Los Angeles.

BNSF has identified 156 acres of existing industrial sites in Wilmington for the railyard, about four miles from harbor docks, between Sepulveda Boulevard on the north, Pacific Coast Highway on the south, the Dominguez Channel on the west and the Terminal Island Freeway on the east. Construction of the would take place from 2013 to 2015.

“Expanding near-dock rail service sharpens the competitive edge that makes the Port of Los Angeles a global leader in international goods movement,” Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commission President Cindy Miscikowski said in a statement. “By requiring the highest achievable low emissions vehicles as a part of the operation delivery system ensuring that this will be the nation’s cleanest railyard, this project would be another model link in Southern California’s unparalleled freight logistics chain.”

BNSF officials said the railyard would eliminate 1.3 million truck trips annually along the I-710, or Long Beach Freeway, resulting in improved air quality and reduced traffic congestion on what is often called the “diesel corridor.” Moreover, BNSF has said it is committed to investing $3 million for the port to study zero-emissions container movement systems. “And yet they’re still bent on stopping this project,” Lena Kent, BNSF director of public affairs, told the Business Journal. “It makes one question whether or not they want to stop all growth in this area and drive traffic elsewhere.”

Several hundred union workers were on hand at the March 7 harbor commission meeting held at the Cruise Center Terminal Annex Building next to the USS Iowa, many of them sporting orange T-shirts with the BNSF logo.

“This is a huge project supporting middle-class wages,” Shomari Davis, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local Union 11, told the Business Journal. “Restoring the middle class is extremely important. That’s how this country was built and that’s how it will sustain itself.”

Construction of the SCIG railyard is expected to create 1,500 direct and indirect jobs annually over three years. When ready for business, SCIG is projected to generate upward of 1,100 long-term jobs.

“This is desperately needed,” Weston LaBar, a political consultant who was on hand representing the Long Beach and Redondo Beach chambers of commerce, told the Business Journal. “It’s an obvious opportunity to create a better, more efficient port complex and a way to stay competitive and remain the gold-standard of ports in North America.”

While the interests of labor and business were well represented, so too were environmental groups, such as the Coalition for Clean Air, Natural Resources Defense Council and Long Beach Alliance For Children With Asthma.

“It’s a wrong decision to prioritize corporate wealth over public health,” Mark Lopez, a representative from the East Yard Community for Environmental Justice, told the Business Journal.

“No matter what window dressing you use to sell this project, children, families and jobs will suffer,” Patricia Ochoa, deputy policy director with the Coalition for Clean Air, said in a statement.

Local elected officials also were on hand at the meeting to express both support and opposition to the railyard. Carson Mayor Jim Dear had a representative express his backing of the project. And Los Angeles City Councilmember Joe Buscaino issued the following statement: “Modernizing our transportation infrastructure is crucial to creating jobs, strengthening our economy and improving our quality of life in Los Angeles. This project is needed to bring lasting prosperity to our region and the nation.”

Meanwhile, Long Beach officials in attendance gave stinging remarks about the failures of the port and BNSF to adequately address environmental concerns. For years opponents of the project have asked Port of Los Angeles officials and harbor commissioners to consider alternative sites for a new railyard, or to implement more stringent environmental standards and requirements of BNSF, such as moving more quickly to zero-emissions transportation systems. But, from their perspective, to no avail.

“This body has done precious little, thus far, to mitigate the impacts,” Mayor Bob Foster told the harbor commission. “It is very hard, intellectually, for me to accept that you value the life of a kid on this side of the city border more than you do a kid in my city.”

Felton Williams, a Long Beach Unified School District boardmember, told the Business Journal, “Our position is, how do we mitigate problems for our kids and schools? We don’t see the EIR as in favor of the positions we’ve taken.”

Councilmember James Johnson piggybacked on Foster’s denouncement of the railyard. “Is it green growth to add air pollution to one of the most polluted neighborhoods in America?” he asked harbor commissioners rhetorically. “Is it just to place this project next to working-class communities of color who already disproportionately bear the burden of goods movement?”

Johnson concluded by saying, “I ask you to deny this project today and work in good faith toward a project with a buffer park and with community mitigations to protect those residents who are so profoundly impacted.”

So who are these residents? Despite the multitude of competing interests at stake, residents like John Cross and Mike Ford put a real face to the debate, bringing the full weight of the controversy to light.

Cross is the president of the West Long Beach Neighborhood Association. He lives near the project site and is concerned about the environmental impact of air and noise pollution emanating from the railyard site, which is adjacent to schools and residences. “I don’t think they really took into consideration the health risks,” he told the Business Journal, referring to the harbor commission and port officials. “All they’re doing is looking at the money.”

Ford, a commercial real estate appraiser who lives two blocks west of the I-710, said he was pleased to see the project moving forward, calling BNSF’s commitment to reducing the environmental footprint of the railyard honest and negotiated in good faith. “I’ve got a certain amount of empathy for my neighbors that legitimately didn’t want it in their backyard,” he told the Business Journal. “I would hope they would attempt to work with BNSF to resolve their real concerns and put away the laundry list of made-up stuff and the false allegations of racism.”

Cross and Ford in many ways represent the public’s divide on the project. And despite the harbor commission’s approval, it remains to be seen when and if SCIG will come to life.

“We’re going to appeal the harbor commissioners’ decision to the L.A. City Council,” David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council and director of the organization’s Southern California Air Program, told the Business Journal.

If the appeal fails, expect litigation to ensue.

“I was very impressed with Mayor Foster and Councilman Johnson,” Cross said. “They really stepped forward and stepped up for the residents of West Long Beach. We’re hoping the City of Long Beach will join us in the lawsuit.”