In what appears to be an uphill battle, Long Beach city leaders and community activists said they hope to rally residents in coming months against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co.’s (BNSF) $500-million railyard project being proposed in Wilmington near west Long Beach, a fight they said may end up in federal court.
After years of contentious debate among building-trade unions, goods-movement industry representatives, environmentalists, city officials and local residents, the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners unanimously voted (5-0) on March 7 to approve a final environmental impact report (EIR) on the project. The EIR, conducted by the Port of Los Angeles, was re-circulated last year after several groups, including the Long Beach City Council, disputed the Port’s original findings.
Despite the approval, on Tuesday, March 12, the Long Beach City Council voted unanimously to appeal the Harbor Commission’s decision, along with environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has vowed to take legal action. The appeal will now be taken up by the Los Angeles City Council.
For nearly eight years, BNSF has been planning to build a new railyard facility, to be called the Southern California International Gateway (SCIG), in order to load cargo from trucks onto rail lines closer to port docks, which would allow the railroad company to increase capacity and efficiency. Ultimately, the project would also boost the Port’s competitiveness in the eyes of the international-trade industry.
Although the facility would add some 8,000 trucks per day on local highways once completed, BNSF claims the project would clean up pollution in the long term by using all-electric, state-of-the-art goods-movement equipment, adding that trucks would not be allowed to pass schools or neighborhoods.
The project, however, has drawn heavy criticism from environmentalists as well as Long Beach city officials, school board members and residents over what they see are objectionable statistics cited in the Port’s EIR and faulty emissions projections.
The proposed near-dock facility would be located on a site just yards from homeless veterans, two elementary schools, a city park, a high school and Villages at Cabrillo family homeless shelter, in west Long Beach, an area called the “diesel death zone” that already suffers from poor air quality. Neighborhood activists say that increased air pollution caused by the new rail facility would not only affect west Long Beach but drift into other neighborhoods as well, including the Wrigley, California Heights, Bixby Knolls and Los Cerritos neighborhoods.
During a panel discussion at a meeting of the Wrigley Area Neighborhood Alliance, Inc. (WANA) on March 18, vocal objectors of the project vowed to carry on their fight against the railyard.
Those on the panel included 7th District Long Beach City Councilmember James Johnson, Long Beach Unified School District Boardmember Felton Williams, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice Co-Founder Angelo Logan and West Long Beach Association President John Cross. The panel included no representatives from the Port or BNSF.
“It’s like David and Goliath,” said Cross, who has spearheaded efforts to protest the railroad giant’s plans. “We’re David, but we just haven’t found the right rock to knock them out.”
Johnson, who has called the project a “textbook example of environmental injustice,” said his main concern is that the project doesn’t consider the possibility of a requirement for zero-emissions technology.
Even though plans are currently underway to use an overhead electrical catenary system for cargo trucks, similar to trolleys and some light commuter rail lines, as part of the 710 Freeway expansion project, the Port has disregarded the technology to be included as a requirement of the railyard, Johnson said.
“The more diesel pollution you have, the more kids get sick, the more asthma, the more lung cancer, the more heart disease,” he said. “It’s absolutely vital for us in our neighborhoods and for our economy, frankly, that we try to move goods and people without polluting the air… That’s the Holy Grail.”
Felton said students are at risk of developing health problems due to the poor air quality at schools caused by passing cargo trucks on the nearby freeway. He added that many of the schools, with the exception of Cabrillo High School, were built years before rail facilities were constructed in the area.
“It’s so bad at times, we have to bring the kids in from recess,” he said. “That’s how bad it is. We’re talking about adding to that.”
The councilmember added that he organized a public hearing on the EIR in Long Beach after Port of L.A. staff refused to do so.
“At the end of the day, L.A. cares about L.A., and they [couldn’t] care less about Long Beach residents along their property,” Johnson said. “I wish that were not the case, but so far that’s been the case… I got my colleagues and said we need to stand up together with one voice. We need to unify. It’s not just about one community, it’s about the Long Beach community, and L.A. can’t tell Long Beach to drop dead, because that’s what they’re saying right here… I’m going to continue to fight for you guys.”
Cross said the project has been pushed by outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and claimed that the mayor has received political contributions from BNSF to pass utility-tax measures in 2010. Williams said BNSF had offered to contribute $1,000 to his last campaign but he sent it back by airmail.
Logan pointed out, however, that the fate of the railyard project will ultimately be decided by a new mayor and a new city council. Councilmember Johnson said he spoke with mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti, who told him that he is undecided on the project but was willing to have a conversation about the issue.
“He said he needs to be open-minded and has not taken a position on the project,” Johnson said. “But I do think he’ll have a conversation… which will actually be a big improvement.”
In a Los Angeles Times article, mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel has stated that she supports the SCIG project because it would increase the Port’s competitiveness globally. However, she adds that she also supports “moving toward zero-emissions technologies for trucks that eliminate trips through residential neighborhoods.”
Regardless of the dispute between Los Angeles and Long Beach, Logan, who has spent the last seven to eight years fighting the project, said, no matter what mitigations are implemented, the SCIG project would still have detrimental impacts due to increased pollution of air, light and noise.
Logan added that if the project isn’t stopped he plans to bring federal and state civil rights cases against the project that he said impacts a segment of the population that consists primarily of the homeless and low-income minorities.
“Folks know this is a bad project,” he said. “It sets a precedent for goods-movement projects, not just here locally but nationally. If this project goes forward, it’s really a message to the world that environmental racism is okay, and it’s not… We are working diligently to defeat this project.”
Asked whether the project could be defeated, Logan said it could go either way.
“The chances are 50/50, in my opinion,” he said. “This is definitely going to go before a federal judge for sure… We could win and justice will prevail, but you never really know.”
Although some residents questioned whether such a large railroad company can be defeated by residents, Joan Greenwood, vice president of WANA, said local residents have won what seemed like impossible battles before.
In the mid 1980s, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plan to build the Blue Line light rail originally would have displaced homes in the historic Wrigley district, she said. After residents united in opposition, the mass-transit agency decided to alter its plans.
“Yes, you can win a [California Environmental Quality Act] lawsuit, but you’ve got to have the public behind you to do it,” Greenwood said. “The science is so bad on this SCIG EIR that it’s like a piece of cake to walk all over it. You can use the railroad’s own data … to defeat it.”
At the end of their meeting, WANA members unanimously voted to oppose the project and to support all legal action against it.