After 24 days of testimony spread out over four months, a field trip to the Port of Los Angeles, and the accumulation of enough conflicting evidence, exhibits and transcripts to fill a filing cabinet drawer, the final tally was not even close.
The hearing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District voted 5-0 last week to issue two crucial operating permits to Kaiser International, the port's largest exporter of coal and petroleum coke and the nemesis of dozens of pleasure boaters who say it is one of the area's worst polluters.
"Five nothing! Not even one dissenting vote!" exclaimed an incredulous Harold Struthers, president of the Los Angeles Boat Owners Assn., a group of about 300 boat owners in Los Angeles Harbor. "We are very disappointed."
Waging a War
The board dealt a devastating blow to Struthers and others with boats in the West Channel who have been waging a war against Kaiser International for more than two years. The boaters complain that black dust from the company's 26-acre facility on Miner Street pollutes the air and damages their vessels. They want air quality officials to force the company to install more effective air pollution control equipment or shut operations.
Now, with the board's decision to issue the permits, the boaters have lost their most powerful form of leverage. The board still must hold a hearing in December to decide what conditions to place on the permits, but AQMD officials said the panel cannot require new pollution control equipment.
"We don't know what we are going to do next," said Kim Burgher, who lives on her boat at Holiday Harbor, the closest marina to the Kaiser International bulk-loader. "But this is not the end. They have won the battle, but they haven't won the war."
Last fall and winter, boaters complained enough to the AQMD about dust that inspectors cited the company three times for creating a public nuisance. Based on those complaints, the AQMD staff refused to issue the operating permits to Kaiser International, saying there was sufficient reason to believe that the company would continue to create a public nuisance. The company still operated, however, while the hearing board considered its case.
Fallout 'Almost Nightly'
"It really is a simple case," said Cindy Simovich, deputy district counsel for the AQMD, before the board vote. "It is a matter of having a source of dark black particulates very close to receptors--the boats--with the wind direction conducive to the transport and fallout of the particles on the boats almost nightly."
But in the end, the case was not so simple. Indeed, it became so convoluted--with abstract models and other theoretical testimony--that B. C. Escobar, the board's engineer member, confessed he was frustrated by the lack of "real evidence."
Kaiser International President Richard E. Holdaway, who vehemently denies that his company is the source of the black dust, hired a former AQMD attorney to help him prove it. In April, the company appealed the AQMD ruling to the hearing board, claiming that it was being unfairly singled out for an air pollution problem prevalent throughout the harbor area. Six months later, the hearing board agreed.
"It is an appropriate decision," said Holdaway, who said he spent about $200,000 on the appeal. "I think our company has done everything reasonable to be good neighbors and meet our social responsibility. And we will continue to."
Holdaway's victory did not come without controversy. Last summer, the Port of Los Angeles, which leases the $23-million facility to Kaiser International for about $2 million a year, invited the hearing board to the port for a tour and private luncheon. During the luncheon, port officials, who supported the company in its appeal, presented a slide show about plans to eventually relocate the facility away from the marinas.
The meeting set off a fiery exchange of letters among the AQMD staff, its governing board and the hearing board over concerns about impropriety. The boat owners, meanwhile, called on the hearing board to disqualify itself from the case--a suggestion the board unanimously rejected.
In the wake of last week's ruling, several boat owners and other San Pedro residents who joined the case against Kaiser International blamed their defeat on the port's lobbying effort. They said their fate was sealed about three weeks after the June luncheon when Mayor Tom Bradley, who has received political contributions from Holdaway and has often pointed to the success of the port as one of his greatest accomplishments, wrote a letter to the hearing board urging it to issue the permits.
"I think we were doomed from the beginning," said Beatrice Atwood Hunt, president of a small San Pedro environmental group that supported the boat owners. "I believe the evidence was overwhelming on our side. But I am still smarting over the fact that they had that lunch with the port."