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Pollution drop from building rail yard near L.A. harbor disputed

Public health and environmental experts dispute predictions that air pollution will be significantly cut if a giant rail yard is built in the L.A. harbor area.

October 21, 2012|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
  • Carmen Rivera, 52, opposes the $500-million Southern California International Gateway project, a proposed 153-acre rail yard in the Los Angeles harbor area. The proposed site for the project, seen in the background, is adjacent to a largely minority and low-income community in west Long Beach with high rates of asthma and respiratory illness related to emissions from various port operations.
Carmen Rivera, 52, opposes the $500-million Southern California International… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Public health and environmental experts are disputing predictions that air pollution would be significantly reduced if a giant rail yard is built next to schools, parks and hundreds of homes in the Los Angeles harbor area.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and the Port of Los Angeles say the proposed 153-acre facility would take enormous numbers of diesel trucks off the road, reducing the risk of cancer and respiratory illness for those who live and work along the 710 Freeway.

Rail and port officials say the $500-million yard — known as the Southern California International Gateway — would handle many of the big rigs that now must travel 20 miles north to drop off and pick up cargo containers at Burlington Northern's Hobart Yard, one of the largest facilities of its type in the nation.

The project is widely supported by labor unions, business organizations, elected officials and regional planning agencies that cite the creation of hundreds of jobs and the need to accommodate port growth.

Public health experts at USC, environmental advocates and officials at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, however, contend that the project's impact analysis overstates the air quality improvements.

Although there would be environmental benefits, they say, they would be erased in the future as the port continues to expand and truck traffic is pushed back to Hobart Yard, which would continue to handle domestic cargo.

Critics assert that the proposed gateway would still create substantial air pollution in adjacent west Long Beach, a largely minority and low-income community with high rates of asthma and respiratory illness related to emissions from various port operations. For example, at Elizabeth Hudson K-8 School near the project site, about 250 of 1,100 students have asthma.

"Hobart Yard won't be empty," said Andrea Hricko, a professor of preventive medicine at USC, citing data from the project's environmental analysis. "BNSF has plans for Hobart even if the Southern California International Gateway is built. By 2035, there will be almost twice as many trucks on the 710 as there were in 2010. The air will not be cleaner."

Rail and port officials counter that building the new yard — already eight years in development — would be better than not doing anything.

The views of the AQMD, environmentalists and public health officials are among the public comments being gathered for the port's draft environmental impact report. After evaluating the comments, the report will be sent to the Los Angeles Harbor Commission for approval early next year.

After the first round of comments ended this year, the port revised parts of the draft and recently released it for additional public review. The first of several hearings on the report was held last week in Wilmington. Several hundred people attended, including several dozen protesters carrying large skulls made of cardboard and chanting, "No more pollution."

At issue is Burlington Northern's plan to build the near-dock rail yard for international cargo in Wilmington next to California 103, between Sepulveda Boulevard and California 1 and east of Alameda Street. It is bordered by industrial uses, except for the east side, where there are schools, playing fields, parks, housing for the homeless and residential neighborhoods.

Railroad and port officials say the facility will be one of the "greenest" freight yards in the nation. Trucks serving the facility would be clean diesels as mandated by the port's air quality requirements. Electric cranes as well as low emission locomotives and hostlers would be used in the yard. Noise and light pollution, they say, would be reduced with shielded lights and a sound wall along the project's border with west Long Beach.

According to the draft environmental impact report, about 5,500 trucks a day would be taken off the 710. Consequently, the report concludes that the risk of cancer and respiratory illness due to harmful emissions would be reduced in west Long Beach and along the vital 710 trade corridor.

But David Pettit, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the revised draft now reveals that the project would have substantial adverse effects on air quality and have a disproportionally high effect on low income, minority residents.

"They have admitted that there will be serious and unmitigable health effects on the neighborhoods surrounding the project," said Pettit, who also contends that Burlington Northern is trying to take credit for air quality improvements that would stem from the port's clean truck program.

If the gateway is built, Hricko said truck traffic would eventually return to Hobart Yard because of increases in domestic trade and a trend in the shipping industry called transloading — an operation that consolidates the loads from two 40-foot cargo containers and places them into one 53-foot container before it is taken by truck to Hobart.

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