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Inland Port Expansion Faces Tide of Criticism

A proposal to make Stockton's river facility much bigger has some concerned about the likely effect on the environment.

August 28, 2004|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

STOCKTON — Diesel smoke from the freighter Luzern wafted across the Port of Stockton on a breeze that also picked up lemon-yellow sulfur dust and dull-gray concrete mix, depositing it nearby on Frank Sanchez's customized 1979 Chevrolet El Camino.

"There's always dust, and sometimes diesel," Sanchez lamented, nodding at his now-filmy, umber-colored lowrider. "And that paint's not cheap."

For 22 years, however, the grit and fumes have been the price that Frank and Annette Sanchez have paid -- without too much complaint -- for living across the street from an obscure little port where several of their friends work.

The little port, however, has plans to become much bigger -- more than tripling in size and nearly doubling the 140 or so ships it welcomes each year. Neighbors such as the Sanchez family, who have long lived nearby, don't much like the idea but aren't terribly concerned about it either. A mile away, however, others are vehemently opposed.

Most of the proposed $190-million expansion would take place not in the gritty Boss Track area, where the Sanchezes live, but as close as 400 yards to some of the most exclusive homes in town, on a former Navy facility called Rough and Ready Island.

Port officials say the planned expansion would bring to the area desperately needed jobs -- as many as 40,000 -- as well as millions of dollars in business each year. And, they contend, a key reason that neighbors oppose the project is concern over their property values.

"It's a marine operation directly across from nice homes on the river," said Deputy Port Director Jeff Kaspar.

Neighbors acknowledge that they don't relish the notion of ships and cranes, trucks and loaders rumbling and clattering just beyond their backyards on the banks of the San Joaquin River.

The legal key to their opposition, however, is the likely environmental impact of the planned expansion. Community groups have enlisted the help of several powerful environmental organizations, which joined in a lawsuit filed last month that seeks to force the port to institute some environmentally friendly -- and costly -- measures.

"I never wanted to be involved in litigation," said Ann Chargin, 81, a retired judge whose riverside home is just across from the island. "At my age, the easy thing would have been for me to sell my house and move. But I think this is too important."

Seventy miles from the Pacific Ocean, Stockton seems, at first blush, an unlikely site for a seaport. Its location in the fertile San Joaquin Valley, however, has made it a center of shipping since the 1930s.

The fight over the planned port expansion, though not unexpected, comes at an especially tricky time. The state is mired in debt, largely because of the collapse of the high-tech economy of the Silicon Valley, an hour to the southwest. Unemployment in the Stockton area is about 10%, compared with about 6.2% statewide.

At the same time, business at California ports is booming, with many ports expanding as they compete for business.

Between 1999 and 2003, ship traffic at the Port of Los Angeles rose 90%, from about 3.8 million 20-foot-equivalent shipping containers in 1999 to about 7.2 million in 2003. This year, traffic is up 4% at Los Angeles and more than 14% at the Port of Long Beach.

The Port of Oakland, just downriver from Stockton, is in the midst of a massive expansion and overhaul.

Stockton port officials figure the timing is right in almost every sense for expanding, and hope to begin work as soon as next year.

Opponents, however, are looking to other ports for inspiration, especially the Port of Los Angeles, where a lawsuit by neighbors and environmental groups resulted in the port agreeing to institute $60 million worth of environmentally friendly measures.

"It's a relatively small port, but the sheer size of the expansion, combined with the lack of environmental mitigation, made us interested," said Julie Masters, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the plaintiffs in the Stockton suit. "Given the success at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, there's no reason that all ports can't do this."

One of the key mitigation efforts underway in Los Angeles has some vessels plugging into dockside electrical outlets instead of running their diesel engines; each ship that runs its engines while docked in Los Angeles generates an estimated 3 tons of nitrogen oxide and 350 pounds of soot.

Stockton contends there is a good reason it can't similarly limit the pollution with the practice, known as "cold ironing."

The Port of Los Angeles spent about $5 million to prepare its facility, and $300,000 apiece to retrofit four vessels belonging to China Shipping. The port has a contract with China Shipping, among other freight companies, and China Shipping vessels routinely use the port.

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