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Residents Fight Port Expansion

With reports of lung problems triggering increased worry over pollution, Long Beach council agrees to review construction plans.

September 12, 2004|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

Reeling from a week of revelations about local health problems, worried Long Beach residents are appealing to the City Council to oppose the wishes of their profitable port by rejecting plans for a 115-acre expansion.

The plans for what would be one of the West Coast's largest container terminals won the unanimous approval of port commissioners last month, like most such projects in a city that considers its port a leading "economic engine."

But that was before Long Beach was stunned by a one-two punch: In one week, two scientific studies raised questions about whether diesel fumes and other air pollution from the port could be causing serious lung problems in the city.

Responding to residents' concerns, the City Council will review the Pier J expansion Tuesday evening in an early litmus test of how the new studies may shape public perceptions of air pollution created by a boom in cargo movement throughout the Los Angeles Basin.

One study, conducted by USC researchers and published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, blames air pollution for permanently stunting some children's lung growth in Long Beach, Loma Linda and several other cities. In Long Beach, 6% of the children studied had "clinically significant reductions" in their ability to breathe.

A separate review of cancer records by a USC epidemiologist revealed high-risk pockets of two respiratory tract cancers in the Long Beach area downwind of the port complex, but could not pinpoint a cause. Scientists have recommended more studies to see whether the cancers may be linked to air pollution.

Scientists engaged in the children's study conducted their Long Beach air monitoring in Bixby Knolls, a relatively affluent neighborhood of graceful Spanish-style homes where many young couples are raising families. The Bixby Knolls air monitor recorded the highest levels of elemental carbon -- a key indicator of diesel fumes -- of the 12 monitors in the basin.

The Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex produces an estimated 24% of the diesel pollution in the region, with the largest share coming from diesel-burning ships. Diesel is a probable carcinogen.

"This city has to decide, are they about trade and tourism, or are they about good, healthy neighborhoods and good quality of life?" said Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, who represents Bixby Knolls. "This can't be about progress and the almighty dollar. It's got to be about people."

Dr. Elisa Nicholas, a Long Beach pediatrician and executive director of the Children's Clinic, comprising not-for-profit community clinics, said the children's study in particular is creating awareness in Long Beach of how air pollution can harm human health.

"To have it on the front pages of all the newspapers is phenomenal," Nicholas said.

Probing the Findings

Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill and City Manager Gerald R. Miller released written statements Friday afternoon, both pointing to an ongoing citywide health assessment. That study will include a review of the new findings, they said.

"The recent USC health studies reflect an issue that is always a priority for mayors and council members of any city in our country, and that is the health of our residents," O'Neill's statement said.

Spokesmen at both ports, which together form the single largest air polluter in the five-county region, said they, too, are concerned about the findings. They point at new technology installed at the ports to cut pollution, promising that more improvements will follow.

The reality is that any new project in the basin with mobile pollution sources -- cars, trucks, trains or ships -- is going to add to existing pollution, said Robert Kanter, planning director of the Long Beach port.

"But as a society, we don't just say we're going to stop everything that we're doing," Kanter said. "What we're going to do is continue to chip away at the causes [of pollution] and continue to progress as a society."

Some clean air activists want to halt port expansion, a notion that port officials label as impractical, noting that the port complex is a major conduit for imports and exports in an increasingly global economy. Now the nation's largest port, the complex is expected to quadruple its cargo volume by 2025, largely because of Asian imports.

Residents of San Pedro and Wilmington have been lobbying for years to reduce pollution from the Los Angeles port. They sued the port over what they said were flaws in environmental documents, leading to a landmark 2003 settlement in which the port agreed to make $60 million in improvements.

In Long Beach, port operations have proved far less confrontational. When the harbor commissioners approved the Pier J project, only a handful of critics showed up.

"I've never not seen the port have its way in anything it wants," said activist Bry Myown.

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