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Port's Effort to Cut Smog Is Criticized

Some Long Beach council members react after residents say that a report on an expansion project underestimates emissions.

September 15, 2004|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

Amid growing concerns from residents about air quality, some Long Beach City Council members Tuesday chastised the city's port for what they called an insufficient effort to reduce air pollution.

Their comments came after residents and clean-air activists pleaded with the council to reject the environmental documents the port has prepared and approved, supporting an 115-acre expansion project. The council voted to put off a final decision on the expansion until November, saying that they hope the two sides can work out their differences.

Port officials defended those documents and urged the council to let them stand. Port representatives said their plan came after a thorough, four-year-long review and would help rein in air pollution.

Critics dismissed that review as a deliberate effort to underestimate the project's emissions, which they said put the port's economic growth over people's health.

"Shame on you guys for coming in here with the 'minimum legal' rather than taking the high road," Councilman Val Lerch told port officials.

The debate over the Pier J expansion has escalated sharply into what some are labeling a referendum on the benefits and problems of international trade in the Los Angeles area.

While many laud port trade for creating thousands of jobs, a growing number of residents blame the port for increased air pollution and traffic congestion.

The Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex has grown swiftly in the last two decades to become the busiest in the United States, largely because of imports from Asia. Today the ports handle more than 43% of the nation's seaborne cargo, with about 15% being transported by truck on the Long Beach Freeway.

In the process, the port complex has become the single largest air polluter in the five-county South Coast region, responsible for 24% of the region's diesel emissions. Diesel, a probable carcinogen, comes mostly from the mammoth container ships serving the ports, along with big-rig trucks, trains and port yard equipment.

The Pier J expansion would involve creating more landfill around the current Pier J directly south of the Queen Mary and the central downtown area of Long Beach. Construction would be done in phases, with the first phase opening in the year 2007, and the final phase in 2015. The major tenant would be China Ocean Shipping Lines, or Cosco.

Port officials say their plans include an assortment of measures to reduce air pollutants, including requiring ships to use cleaner-burning fuels, adding "cold ironing" for certain ships and requiring the terminal operator to use only diesel-powered equipment that meets federal standards.

But the Pier J environmental documents state that even with those measurements, emissions of key air contaminants -- including a kind of particulate matter contained in diesel exhaust -- would still be considered significant.

Critics call those plans woefully inadequate. In fact, two large environmental groups -- the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Coalition for Clean Air -- have fought the project with a barrage of letters and reports.

The same two groups sued the city and port of Los Angeles in 2001, alleging an inadequate environmental review of the new China Shipping pier.

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