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Neighbors Urge L.A. Port to Rethink Rail Yard Plan

More than 300 jam a Long Beach meeting. Residents say pollution from trucks serving the proposed facility would threaten their health.

October 07, 2005|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

More than 300 harbor-area residents who fear worsening air pollution lambasted the Port of Los Angeles' plans for a new rail yard at a public meeting Thursday night.

Residents charged that the port was dumping the 183-acre facility in a lower-income area in Wilmington and west Long Beach that is close to homes and schools. They challenged the port to rethink its plans, warning that the 1 million diesel-burning trucks that would transport goods to and from the yard each year would pose a serious health threat to residents.

The area is being turned into a sacrificial lamb, said Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga, who represents west Long Beach.

"The project will take the area's already bad air-quality level to a level that will be deadly for our children," she said, adding that her own children, who were born in the area, suffer from respiratory problems.

"I am outraged that families of limited means are spending more on medical bills and medicine than on books and milk," she said, sparking spirited applause.

"We're all people on the wrong side of town," said Marlene Sanchez, who has lived in west Long Beach since 1974. A rail yard would never be proposed for wealthier parts of the city, she said.

Project critic John Cross noted that his grandson attends Hudson Elementary School, which is 200 yards from the proposed yard, and will attend high school down the street, so he would be exposed to fumes from the diesel-burning trucks, ships and trains serving the port. Diesel fumes, a carcinogen, are also known to exacerbate asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

"We're not a Third World country that you can walk on and step on!" Cross called out to port officials, drawing loud cheers and more applause.

The debate is the first significant port controversy to confront Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has named a new Harbor Commission and pledged to clean up port smog.

He has also promised to pay more attention to Wilmington, where residents have long complained that they suffer far more than their share of air pollution, traffic and noise. Wilmington's residents are largely Latino and less affluent than residents of San Pedro, which has received the bulk of the port's funding for community revitalization.

Residents and port businesses are scrutinizing the rail debate for clues to how Villaraigosa will deal with rapidly rising anger over escalating port pollution.

BNSF Railway officials promise to make the rail yard a national model for "green" technology by using the country's first electric cranes and clean-burning yard equipment fueled by liquefied natural gas.

They say that once the yard is built, cargo containers could be loaded onto rail cars that would move inland on the Alameda Corridor. Much of that cargo currently travels north by truck on the Long Beach Freeway, generating diesel pollution and clogging the antiquated roadway.

But residents complain that trucks would still make 1 million trips annually between docked ships and the new yard, boosting air pollution for five public schools and hundreds of homes.

Thursday's meeting at Silverado Park in Long Beach was the first of two sessions in which residents could comment on what they want the Port of Los Angeles to examine in the upcoming study of the yard's potential environmental affects. The second meeting will be at 6 p.m. Oct. 13 at Banning's Landing in Wilmington.

The crowd filled the park's small, overheated community meeting room, leaving most people standing along walls or outside as the meeting began.

Some residents complained that port officials had given confusing information about the meeting. Although it was scheduled to start at 6 p.m., the port had sent 70,000 postcards to residents in Wilmington and San Pedro that listed the starting time as 5 p.m. .

The port held an informal open house starting at 5 p.m., but did not begin taking public comment until nearly 7 p.m. .

Harbor Commission President S. David Freeman could attend Thursday's meeting because of a conflict with a dinner hosted by the Port of Los Angeles for the executive committee of the International Assn. of Ports and Harbors. Commission Vice President Jerilyn Lopez Mendoza showed up shortly after 9 p.m., after the port dinner.

The meeting was a good beginning she said. "I was impressed with the level of passion and knowledge that the community brought to the table," Lopez said. "I hope port staff will take their comments to heart."

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