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Vote on Port of L.A. Expansion Delayed : Development: The $2-billion project faced rejection because of environmental concerns. A Coastal Commission decision is scheduled for October.

August 16, 1992|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A long-awaited California Coastal Commission vote on a proposed $2-billion expansion of the Port of Los Angeles was delayed last week when it became clear the controversial project would be rejected.

Instead, the commission scheduled a vote for October to allow the port and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to resolve a host of environmental concerns raised by the commission's staff, area residents and several state and federal agencies.

The delay avoided a potentially serious setback for the port project, which already has been scaled down once and now calls for deepening the harbor's shipping channels and enlarging Terminal Island by 582 acres for new cargo terminals. If approved, the project would be the state's largest coastal development in at least 20 years and among the largest ever undertaken on the West Coast, according to Coastal Commission officials.

At stake Wednesday was the Corps of Engineers' request for approval of a $580-million dredging and landfill project pivotal to the port's 2020 Plan, so named because it is aimed at accommodating new business in the port over the next 30 years. The corps' project calls for dredging 48 million cubic yards from the harbor to deepen channels and expand Terminal Island over the next 13 years.

But the corps' project, like an earlier and larger dredging-and-landfill proposal, ran afoul of the Coastal Commission's staff because it posed a number of environmental problems that neither the corps nor the port could offset with other measures. Specifically, the commission staff argued that the project should not be approved unless the corps and the port develop plans to offset the loss of 582 acres of waterway that is home to a variety of sea life, including the endangered California least tern and brown pelican.

To date, the port and corps have pledged to restore 380 acres in north San Diego County's Batiquitos Lagoon.

Facing opposition not only from the commission staff but from the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Fish and Game, the corps and the port originally hoped Wednesday to persuade the Coastal Commission that the project should move forward as new plans are worked out to resolve its environmental consequences.

Joining the agencies in support of the project were port tenants, shipping industry officials and a representative of the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen's Union--all of whom called the port's expansion pivotal to the region's economy and employment.

But the danger in pressing for a vote Wednesday became clear when Commissioner David Malcolm, a strong supporter of the project, successfully called for a delay and port and corps officials, who earlier insisted the project must quickly be approved, agreed to the postponement. By one account, the project had support from only five of the 10 commissioners present at Wednesday's meeting, one short of the majority needed for approval.

Robert Joe, chief of planning for the corps' Los Angeles office, and Dwayne Lee, the port's deputy executive director of development, both expressed disappointment that the project was not approved Wednesday but said they remain confident they can persuade the commission and its staff that the project's environmental concerns can be resolved.

But while pledging to review any new plans that come forward, Larry Simon, the commission's ports coordinator, said it remains unclear how the corps and port can satisfy the commission staff's concerns that the project not be approved unless its entire 582-acre impact is offset by coastal restoration projects in Batiquitos and elsewhere.

"I think the commission sent a very clear message today that the biological mitigation plan (offered by the corps and port) was totally unacceptable," Simon said. The commission, he said, also made it clear "that the onus is on the corps and the port to bring back a smaller project."

The delay means the project will not come before the commission again until its October meeting in Monterey, a fact that disturbed several commissioners and many opponents of the project who were allowed to speak Wednesday because they will not be able to attend the Northern California meeting.

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