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Environment & Science

LA harbor officials consider air and health impacts of proposed $500 million railyard [updated]

Supporters and opponents of the proposed $500 million Southern California International Gateway railyard pack a hearing as harbor commissioners consider approving the project's final environmental impact report.
Supporters and opponents of the proposed $500 million Southern California International Gateway railyard pack a hearing as harbor commissioners consider approving the project's final environmental impact report.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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Update at 5:45 p.m.:

After a seven-hour hearing, the L.A. Harbor Commission unanimously approved the railyard project. The L.A. City Council must still sign off on it before construction can begin.

"The Commissioners' vote today validates that building [the Southern California International Gateway] is the right choice for green growth in Los Angeles and will be a new environmental model for the rest of the country," said Matthew K. Rose, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway, which proposed the project.

Original story: 

Supporters and opponents of a huge railyard project in Wilmington -- supporters clad in orange t-shirts and opponents in white -- have packed a cruise terminal annex at the Port of Los Angeles to weigh in as L.A.'s harbor commissioners consider approving the Southern California International Gateway. 

Los Angeles harbor officials are slated to vote today on the final environmental impact report for the 153-acre, $500 million project, sponsored by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway. 

Freight yards around the ports are pollution magnets: that’s where ship containers are transferred to trucks and trains that carry cargo all over the country.

The port's director of environmental management, Christopher Cannon, highlighted "green" aspects of the project in the staff presentation opening the hearing, including LEED-certification for buildings on the structure, as well as electric and low-emissions equipment on site. 

Officials say the Southern California International Gateway will be one of the cleanest freight yards in the country, not just because of these measures.

Burlington Northern says the yard's location will cut pollution in nearby residential communities by shortening truck trips to and from the port. The proposed yard, in the Alameda Corridor along the 710 freeway, is closer to the port than other off-port transfer facilities that BNSF now uses. 

But environmental and health advocates ridicule that claim. They counter that the SCIG would actually worsen air quality in the region, especially for low-income neighborhoods. They criticize the environmental impact report's analysis for failing to anticipate the growth that the project would stimulate, especially at the already-used Hobart Yard closer to downtown LA. 

USC professor Andrea Hricko told the harbor commission in a letter that the EIR failed to consider "future emissions from Hobart as more and more transloading occurs and as Hobart fills up."

The port's Cannon told commissioners that such criticisms are unfounded. "The public, they think the projects are linked. They're not," he said. "The SCIG project is operated independent of Hobart....all the traffic that does go to Hobart, would continue to go to Hobart." 

Critics have also asked for a full assessment of the project's impact on public health, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards. "We're not ready to do a health impact assessment because it would involve multiple jurisdictions and multiple issues that don't have a direct nexus to a project," Cannon said, though he insisted that the port's analysis of the project complies with state law. 

Community members and activists are weighing legal challenges to the railyard project if the harbor commission approves it.

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster says that may be necessary, since he believes Burlington Northern has failed to address community concerns. “What they really said is…we’re going to wait 'til you sue us before we deal with these concerns," Foster told the harbor commissioners Thursday, in unusually public criticism of the port. “This body has done precious little to mitigate the impacts of what we see. I hope that changes."

The SCIG project has been in the pipeline at the Port of Los Angeles since 2005. The first draft of the environmental impact report came out a year and a half ago; it was recirculated last fall before port officials finalized it.