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Residents Feel Ignored in L.A. Harbor Deal

Port officials insist on downplaying the effect terminals have on the area, neighbors say.

March 11, 2004|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

Harbor-area residents insist that anyone walking the streets of San Pedro and Wilmington can see what they call the "aesthetic impact" of the Port of Los Angeles: brown air, mountains of cargo containers, diesel-belching ships and trucks, cranes so shigh that they block the view of the Vincent Thomas Bridge.

But port officials balk at acknowledging in writing how the newest terminal at the nation's largest seaport affects the communities around it. They prefer "potential aesthetic impact."

Wrangling over that phrase is jeopardizing the future of a landmark year-old legal pact crafted to allow the opening of a giant terminal for a Chinese shipping firm. Port commissioners will meet on the matter today.

Though several issues remain, the debate over aesthetic impact isn't just a battle over semantics. For many residents, it embodies division between the community and port officials and leaves them feeling betrayed.

"They're willing to let this whole thing go over one word -- 'potential,' " said resident Noel Park, who has spent a decade fighting for cleaner air and a port leadership that is more sensitive to the nearby community.

The pact was forged between the port and community groups in March 2003.

Now, the port has asked to modify the agreement to make sure that the prospective tenant, China Shipping, moves in. Environmental and community groups that signed the pact have agreed to alter some key points, but they drew the line at accepting "potential."

"One of the things we've been asking all along is for the port to finally open up to the fact that there are negative impacts ... to evaluate that and then to do mitigation," said Andrew Mardesich, San Pedro Peninsula Homeowners United's vice president for port affairs.

Repeatedly, he said, the port has conducted environmental reviews that have failed to acknowledge such impacts.

Some harbor-area residents say they feel betrayed by Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, who touted the pact as proof that the port would start dealing with the community in a new way.

But Nicholas Tonsich, chairman of the city Harbor Commission, rejected the betrayal complaint. "In terms of the mayor and this commission doing what's right for the local community, there's a list as long as my arm of what's been done so far," he said.

He cited such efforts as the city's breaking ground on a $20-million Promenade Gateway project, the first phase of an effort to create open space for the public, as well as millions of dollars spent to plan a waterfront redevelopment project.

"If all they can rely on is the past to support their argument," Tonsich said, "I think it's a pretty weak argument compared to what's happening in the present."

The commission is reluctant to acknowledge that the China Shipping terminal has an impact on the community before the required reviews are done, because that would not conform with the California Environmental Quality Act, Tonsich said.

"We're not saying that by going through the [environmental] process, we're not going to find impacts," he said. "We're just saying that it would be improper to prejudge it before the process is completed."

But Gail Ruderman Feuer, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which represents the community groups, says she does not think the language would violate state environmental law.

And some residents say they have run out of patience.

"I'm sorry. No more verbal promises. No more guarantees," Mardesich said. "The only reason we're here right now is that we caught their hands in the cookie jar with the China Shipping lawsuit."

When the port failed to conduct legally required reviews for the terminal, environmental and community groups sued. An appellate panel, in turn, halted construction of the 174-acre facility -- largely complete at the time -- until the environmental reviews were completed.

Fearful that China Shipping might leave for another city, port and city officials negotiated the pact with the groups that sued, allowing the terminal to open before the environmental documents were finished. In return, the port committed to paying $60 million for a wide range of environmental improvements -- $50 million of it to the community.

Chief among the improvements: re-engineering the facility to make it the nation's first "green" cargo terminal, where giant container ships could plug in to onshore electric power, allowing them to shut off their diesel engines.

That was considered enormous progress to residents in an area of southern Los Angeles County that is blanketed by diesel fumes, a probable carcinogen.

But the port failed to notify China Shipping of the plan before signing the agreement, angering the company. In time, the Natural Resources Defense Council negotiated with the firm and agreed to alter the pact to allow China Shipping to plug in only 70% of its ships, not 100%, and to require that only two of six cranes be replaced with smaller cranes.

In return, the community groups asked for the port's acknowledgment of "aesthetic impacts" -- and progress ground to a standstill.

Janice Hahn, the councilwoman who represents the harbor area, said this week that she believed the terminal would still be an innovative "green" facility, even if China Shipping left. She vowed that she would continue working to make sure the port compensated the community for the impact of its growth.

"At the end of the day, if this is something the Port of L.A. is unwilling to do, for whatever reason, I and the community will not give up pressuring the Port of L.A. to honor mitigation efforts in the communities of San Pedro and Wilmington," she said.

Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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