During a packed public hearing at the Silverado Park Community Center on Nov. 7 last week, local residents and stakeholders gave public testimony on a highly contentious proposal to build a $500-million railyard adjacent to west Long Beach schools and neighborhoods.
For the past seven years, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway has been planning to develop a Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) on a 253-acre site in east Wilmington, bounded by Sepulveda Boulevard, Pacific Coast Highway, the Dominguez Channel and the Terminal Island Freeway.
Conducting an environmental review of the project is the Port of Los Angeles, which states that the proposed near-dock rail facility would help the Port take advantage of the Alameda Corridor rail system, meet anticipated intermodal demand, increase capacity and move cargo closer to port docks, which would reduce the need to haul containers 24 miles up the I-710 Freeway to the Hobart Yard in the City of Commerce.
BNSF, meanwhile, contends that the SCIG would be the “greenest intermodal transfer rail facility in the nation” and states that the company plans to invest $100 million into electric gantry cranes and low-emission locomotives and equipment, while committing $3 million toward the Port’s technology advancement program.
However, in recent years, disputes over the project’s potential economic, health, traffic, noise and environmental impacts have pitted corporations, international trade associations and labor unions against small businesses, environmental groups and community activists.
Last week’s meeting, organized by 7th District Long Beach City Councilmember James Johnson, provided a chance for west Long Beach residents, who would be most impacted by the project, to comment on the Port’s recently released “re-circulated” draft environmental impact report (DEIR). Johnson said he scheduled the hearing after Port officials declined to hold a meeting in Long Beach after the Port had a hearing in Wilmington last month. All comments during the Long Beach hearing were transcribed and sent to the Port as part of a 45-day comment period that officially ended on Nov. 13. “This is a major project, and it is important that we get this right,” Johnson said.
Port officials said they would respond to comments in a final EIR to be released in early 2013, after which the Los Angeles Harbor Commission would vote on whether to approve the project. “We don’t treat anybody differently, but we’ll respond to every comment,” said Chris Cannon, the Port’s director of environmental management. The Port has revised its DEIR on the project after being criticized last year for using what opponents said was “outdated” and “flawed” baseline statistics from 2005 to calculate environmental impacts. The Port has since updated the data to reflect 2010 statistics and most recent cargo projections.
Johnson, however, said the new report is still “lacking.” Though the report was revised, he said the recirculated DEIR still doesn’t lay out a “feasible roadmap” for zero-emissions container-movement technology, doesn’t adequately accommodate existing local businesses that would be displaced and provides “zero” funding to mitigate potential health impacts on the west Long Beach community.
Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) officials also expressed concerns about the Port’s revised analysis, particularly since the railyard would be located close to schools, many of which already have a high prevalence of children with asthma due to being located near the local ports, refineries and highly congested freeways. During the meeting, a group of children from the Century Villages at Cabrillo, a shelter for veterans, the homeless, families and youth also located near the project site, held up signs alternating happy and sad faces that represented the two possible outcomes of the project.
In a letter dated Nov. 9 obtained by the Signal Tribune, Carri Matsumoto, executive director of LBUSD’s facilities development and planning branch, states that the Port’s re-circulated DEIR is based on what the district calls a “fundamental flaw” and an “unrealistic and unsubstantiated assumption” that trucks currently going to the Hobart Railyard would instead go to the SCIG facility once it’s built. She also states that the report makes assumptions that violate the California Environmental Quality Act, “hides the need for mitigation,” “improperly rejects and fails to adequately analyze a reasonable range of alternatives” and provides “misleading and incomplete health-risk assessment” that “masks impacts.”
Matsumoto states that LBUSD is not alone in its concerns, adding that the South Coast Air Quality Management District has also identified problems with the Port’s analysis. “The health and welfare of our children and the health and welfare of the community is vitally important to the school district,” said Felton Williams, a member of the LBUSD Board of Education, during the public hearing. “The kids can’t really speak up for themselves, so it’s important that we understand and recognize that and to mitigate some of the health impacts occurring for our children… whatever we can do at the school district to protect our kids, we’re going to do that.”
Some Long Beach residents and construction labor union members, however, spoke out in favor of the project. One resident, who said she is a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said she supports the SCIG project because it would create 1,500 construction jobs per year over a three-year span. She added that BNSF has committed to a project labor agreement with regional labor groups to mandate local hiring and provide workforce training. “They are committing to giving us work,” she said, adding that the Port’s analysis ensures that the project would create a “greener facility” than what’s there now.
Other residents, however, have stated that the project would create a “net loss” of jobs since existing warehousing, trucking and Port-related businesses, which provide for as many as 1,200 jobs, would have to be downsized or relocated entirely. The new SCIG project would provide about 450 permanent jobs at build-out, according to the DEIR. Regardless of their position on the SCIG project, some residents, however, said the community must come up with a “buffer” plan, particularly since there are five major Port construction projects in the pipeline for the next 15 years. Some speakers gave credence to coming up with a mitigation plan, including the possibility of a “green space park” that would run from Pacific Coast Highway to Wardlow Road.
John Cross, president of the West Long Beach Neighborhood Association, one of the most vocal opponents to the project, however, said mitigating efforts aren’t enough, adding that railroad companies are only required to follow federal guidelines due to interstate commerce laws. He said the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles should come together to move the project within Port confines. “We have the highest asthma rate in the city over here on the west side,” Cross said. “If you put in a green wall or put in a park, the diesel pollution from the trains and trucks will still flow over into our community. The only place to put this railyard is south of Anaheim Street on Port property… we don’t need [the railyard] next to our schools [and] we don’t need it next to our homes.”