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Officials Scramble to Save 'Green' Port Pact

March 10, 2004|Deborah Schoch and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

One year after the Port of Los Angeles signed a landmark environmental pact to open a new shipping terminal, the dock still stands empty and officials are racing to save an agreement that would bring a giant Chinese shipping firm to the facility.

Not a single ship has docked at what was billed as the nation's first "green" container terminal, where massive cargo ships would "plug in" to onshore electrical power and shut off their diesel-belching engines while in port.

Now, the March 2003 agreement is in jeopardy as the port and city attempt to alter some of the terms they agreed to last year in settling a lawsuit brought by community and environmental groups.

"Our fear is that the city is on the brink of squandering a win-win deal that brings jobs and revenue to the city while setting the standard for a model environmental terminal," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a lead attorney for the local groups involved in the settlement.

Though talks continue, the stalemate could turn into a major embarrassment for Mayor James K. Hahn, who once predicted that the pact would produce cleaner air and more jobs. Now, with the terminal unused, the air is no cleaner, and Hahn's relations with residents and a powerful Chinese shipping company are strained.

Harbor Commissioner James Acevedo said he could not comment much because of negotiations, but he did say, "I am confident that we are going to get something done.... It's still extremely open for discussion."

Still, many Los Angeles officials fear that the firm, China Shipping Holding Co., will instead dock its ships at the port's nearby competitor, the Port of Long Beach, where the firm is already sending some vessels.

The Board of Harbor Commissioners is scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss the status of the deal, but commissioners are not saying if they plan to alter the "best and final offer" they issued to local groups Feb. 25. In a March 1 letter to the port and Hahn obtained by The Times, attorneys for those groups called that offer unacceptable.

The controversy stems from the port's spring 2001 approval of plans to build a major terminal in San Pedro for China Shipping.

The NRDC and local groups responded with a lawsuit, saying that the port had failed to conduct the lengthy environmental reviews required by federal and state laws.

The suit received widespread attention because the burgeoning ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have together become the biggest source of air pollution in the Los Angeles region.

Construction of the terminal was nearly complete in October 2002 when a 2nd District Court of Appeal panel halted the work and ordered the environmental reviews.

Fearing that China Shipping would cancel its plans in frustration, the port and the city entered into talks with the environmental and local groups.

The result was a settlement announced March 5, 2003 -- a year ago last Friday -- and a burst of favorable national publicity for the Port of Los Angeles.

In return for being allowed to open the China Shipping terminal immediately, the port agreed to pay $60 million for an array of projects intended to reduce air pollution and offset any other environmental damage.

The most innovative project involved remodeling the terminal and some of China Shipping's vessels to allow the dock to operate as the nation's first cargo terminal using plug-in electric power.

In what came to be seen as a major mix-up, however, the port and city did not consult China Shipping before signing the agreement -- an oversight they later attributed to their inability to discuss the terms of confidential settlement talks.

China Shipping raised significant concerns, saying it was being asked to retrofit ships without knowing the potential costs or technical considerations. That led to extended talks with the China-owned company and, in time, to port efforts to revise the 2003 agreement.

Now, China Shipping has agreed that 70% of its ships calling at the new terminal will plug in to electric power, according to the March 1 letter from the NRDC to Hahn and the port. The original agreement called for all of its ships to plug in, but the NRDC and local groups have agreed to reduce the requirement, according to the letter.

In addition, although the pact called for replacing six existing 16-story cranes with low-profile cranes, China Shipping and the plaintiffs have agreed to require only two low-profile cranes so that the technology can be tested, the letter states.

But talks bogged down between the port, the city and the NRDC over other issues, according to the letter and interviews.

A key issue appears to be the NRDC's request that the port and the city acknowledge that the China Shipping project would have "aesthetic impacts" on the surrounding community. Initially, the NRDC and the local groups asked that the environmental review include those words, and a port negotiating team apparently agreed in a Feb. 13 draft, according to the letter.

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