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Environmentalists Win a Battle Over L.A. Port Terminal

Court halts further building and operation of the complex pending a final judicial ruling.

October 24, 2002|Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writer

Environmentalists won an important battle Wednesday in the complex, seesaw legal war with harbor officials over construction of a 174-acre terminal at the Port of Los Angeles.

A three-judge panel of the state's 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles stayed further construction and operation of the massive new container complex near the Vincent Thomas Bridge pending a final judicial decision in the case about the adequacy of environmental impact studies.

In what the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the principal litigants in the case, called a "stunning victory for environmentalists," the court issued a four-part order that blocks:

* Construction of the last 200 feet of a 1,200-foot wharf that is already largely completed.

* Erection and operation of four 16-story cranes that are being transported from China on barges.

* Operation of the completed portion of the wharf by China Shipping Holding Co.

* Construction and operation of a second wharf.

"This is a great day for local residents, who have been battling the port for years over the right to a clean and healthy community," said Gail Ruderman Feuer of the environmental council.

"Our goal is not necessarily to stop this thing forever," she said. "Our goal is to figure out the environmental impacts and figure out how to mitigate them."

Harbor Commission President Nicholas Tonsich said if the courts ultimately decide that additional environmental reviews are needed, the Port of Los Angeles will be happy to comply.

"The fact that the Court of Appeal wants to stay construction while it reviews the environmental assessments is not something we are troubled with," he said.

"We are always striving to assure that the environment is the foremost consideration."

He expressed confidence that the full project will be completed and put into operation.

Controversy over the project began more than a year ago, after the City Council awarded China Shipping a $650-million lease agreement on property previously used as a crude oil tank farm, tanker depot and shipyard.

The agreement called for construction of two wharves capable of handling 260 cargo ships and about 1.5 million shipping containers a year.

Port officials warned that construction delays could sully the harbor's reputation as a good business partner with some of the world's largest shipping firms.

A coalition of organizations that included the environmental council, Coalition for Clean Air, San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners Coalition and San Pedro Peninsula Homeowners United, filed suit in state court against the city and the port, arguing that the environmental impact assessments had been inadequate.

When a state court ruled against the coalition, the group moved to federal court, challenging a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit that the corps had approved after determining that the terminal would actually improve regional air quality by enhancing the efficiency of cargo handling in an existing industrial zone.

The coalition argued that the corps had failed to gauge the cumulative impact of the entire project before allowing construction to begin on the first wharf.

In August a federal judge rejected the coalition's request to halt construction, and the work continued.

Wednesday's state appellate decision brought most of that work to a halt.

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