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Court Halts Work at L.A. Port

Appeals panel bars completing $47-million project pending review of impact on residents.

October 31, 2002|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

In a major setback for a Port of Los Angeles expansion project, a three-judge panel on Wednesday permanently enjoined construction of a massive new terminal near the Vincent Thomas Bridge, pending a review of its impacts on the health and safety of local residents.

In a unanimous ruling, the 2nd District Court of Appeal panel sided with a coalition of community and environmental groups that argued the city violated state environmental law by failing to gauge the cumulative impact of the entire project before allowing construction of the first of its three phases, a $47-million wharf that is 83% complete.

The court order bars the pouring of 200 additional feet of concrete needed to complete the wharf.

The coalition contends that the terminal, which is being built 500 feet away from San Pedro homes, will spew cancer-causing diesel exhaust and generate other potentially harmful effects, including trips by as many as 1 million trucks a year on local streets and freeways.

"This is an amazing slap in the face of the Port of Los Angeles," said attorney Gail Ruderman Feuer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the principal litigants in the case.

"And it's a spectacular win for the people who have been battling the port for decades over the right to breathe without fear," she said. "This is the first time a court has stepped in and told the port that it must follow the law to protect the rights of the communities."

Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes the port, agreed.

"Chalk one up for the little guys," she said. "We don't want to stop port operations entirely, we only want to get at the truth about this project. But it seems the only way to get at the truth is to stop it in its tracks."

Port officials counter that the process of reviewing the project's environmental effects was approved by the Los Angeles City Council, the California Costal Commission and other state and federal agencies.

A week ago, the judges stayed further construction pending a final decision on the project, which has been engulfed in controversy since the Los Angeles City Council more than a year ago awarded China Shipping a $650-million lease on the property.

Wednesday's decision raised questions about the ultimate fate of the construction effort originally intended to include two wharves designed to handle 260 cargo ships and 1.5 million 20-foot containers a year.

City officials expressed concerns that China Shipping may decide to pull up stakes and seek a new home for its terminal elsewhere.

Then there are the four 16-story cranes the firm bought for $7 million each. The cranes, which are currently being stored on a barge in the harbor, may never be erected given that activists contend they will block coastal views.

"I hope they sink," said San Pedro activist Janet Gunter, who has urged that the city consider buying less intrusive collapsible cranes.

Such ideas had been summarily dismissed by port authorities as so much wishful thinking. Not anymore.

"Whatever needs to be done will be done," said Harbor Commission President Nick Tonsich. "We've requested that staff take a better look at collapsible cranes."

Harbor-area organizations originally filed a lawsuit 18 months ago in Los Angeles Superior Court against Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Harbor Department and China Shipping.

The state court ruled against the coalition, which includes the Natural Resources Defense Council, San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners Coalition, San Pedro Homeowners United Inc. and the Coalition for Clean Air.

The coalition appealed the state court ruling. But it also moved to federal court, challenging a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to build the first wharf. The corps approved that phase after determining that the terminal would actually improve regional air quality by enhancing the efficiency of cargo handling in an existing industrial zone.

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

On Wednesday, the state appellate court reversed the earlier state court's decision until a new environmental review is completed. Lawyers on both sides of the issue said that could take six months or longer.

Port officials have predicted that delays caused by a court order could cost the port about $1.2 million a month. They also fear that such delays may damage their reputation as good business partners with some of the world's largest shipping firms.

David McKenna, who is in charge of the city attorney's harbor division, which fought the coalition's challenge, said, "The reversal of the trial court decision is disappointing. Hopefully, we'll be able to move forward with the project. We'll comply with all requirements."

In any case, Feuer said it was unlikely that "the city would have to tear up the nearly completed wharf." But she said the new environmental review will "take into consideration whether the project's later phases still make sense."

In the meantime, Jesse Marquez, chairman of the Wilmington Coalition for a Safe Environment, said, "I'm just happy the justices made an honorable and correct decision to uphold California environmental laws, and respect the public's interests."

"When I first heard about the ruling, a tear came to my eye, and I sighed with relief," he said. "We've put in thousands of hours trying to prove our point and, until today, it seemed like no one wanted to listen."

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