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Accord Clears Way for '03 Plan to Clean Up Air at Port

Year-old deal to cut diesel pollution stalled over legal problems, questions of aesthetic impact of China Shipping's terminal.

March 12, 2004|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

A $60-million legal pact that won national acclaim a year ago may finally produce cleaner air at the Port of Los Angeles after a concession Thursday by port commissioners that their newest shipping terminal has aesthetic impacts.

That concession is expected to allow the opening next month of the nation's first "green" terminal, where ships can plug into the mainland electric power grid and turn off their diesel engines.

Diesel exhaust from giant container ships has made the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex the largest air polluter in the Los Angeles region.

In a March 2003 court settlement, the port agreed to pay $60 million for the plug-in technology, other environmental improvements such as upgrading diesel trucks and parks, and other projects in the port community.

In return, environmental and neighborhood groups gave the port permission to open the terminal, despite a court order in a case brought by the groups that stopped construction.

That pact promised to heal decades of friction between the nation's largest port and its neighbors over pollution and other issues.

But it foundered amid legal problems, most recently the commissioners' refusal to admit in a revised pact that the new terminal -- 75 acres of concrete with four cranes 22 stories tall -- has an aesthetic impact on the surrounding community.

Residents viewed the refusal as proof that the port was betraying the trust of San Pedro and Wilmington residents. How, they asked, could commissioners deny that the completed terminal has an impact?

But after five hours of talks Thursday, negotiators salvaged an agreement that was in danger of collapse as recently as Wednesday night.

Representatives of the port and residents' groups announced an agreement in principle in the lobby of the Port of Los Angeles headquarters in San Pedro.

"This is a significant win for the people of Los Angeles because it paves the way for the greenest terminal in the country to open while bringing jobs and revenue to the city," said lead negotiator Gail Ruderman Feuer, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Fund.

City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the harbor area and worked to achieve the compromise, expressed relief.

"It's a great day," she said. "They worked it out. I'm really proud of both sides. And at the end of the day, it's the communities that are going to win."

The amended agreement will state that a $20-million fund already established in the original pact is "being created in part to allow for the mitigation of the aesthetic impacts of the China Shipping terminal off of port lands." A second sentence, added to assuage port commissioners, states: "The port is not prejudging whether these impacts are adverse or significant."

Nicholas Tonsich, head of the Board of Harbor Commissioners, previously raised concerns about acknowledging aesthetic effects, saying it prejudged environmental reviews that are still incomplete. But when he took the new wording to the board, he said, "They had no difficulty accepting it."

The China Shipping terminal has been delayed twice, angering the Shanghai-based firm that was granted a port permit in May 2001 for Pier 100. Residents and environmental groups sued the port, charging that it had failed to prepare environmental reports required by law. An appellate court panel agreed, ordering construction halted in October 2002.

So the port and Mayor James K. Hahn's administration negotiated with the groups that sued, winning their permission to open the terminal.

But port and city officials failed to notify China Shipping of the deal prior to signing the March 2003 agreement, and the firm nearly left the port. Months of talks, however, led to an agreement between China Shipping and the plaintiffs, in which the plaintiffs agreed that only 70% of the firm's ships needed to plug into on-shore power.

The port paid to re-engineer two of those ships and built a barge to be used as a plug-in center at the pier. The barge is still sitting idle at the port.

Work on the revamped pact stalled when the port refused to acknowledge that the terminal has an aesthetic impact on the community. Residents accused the port and Hahn of going back on their word.

Now, officials hope to have the new agreement signed in the next week.

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Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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