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Environmentalists, city of Long Beach, air regulators all file CEQA challenges to proposed rail transfer yard

Supporters and opponents of the Southern California International Gateway project express their opinions on t-shirts at a harbor commissioners meeting in March.
Supporters and opponents of the Southern California International Gateway project express their opinions on t-shirts at a harbor commissioners meeting in March.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

Environmental groups, the city of Long Beach, and air regulators are all challenging the city of Los Angeles' approval for a proposed $500 million rail transfer yard near Wilmington and the 710 freeway.

A complaint filed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District Friday is the third filed in Superior Court about the Southern California International Gateway.

The BNSF railway’s project would serve as a transfer point between the harbor complex and rail. Short-haul trucks would travel four miles up the freeway to move containers of cargo onto trans. Trucks taking containers to BNSF trains now must travel to Commerce, about 20 miles farther away from the port.

L.A. port officials, politicians, business interests and some residents tout the project's economic value. They say it will keep the port competitive by helping to to handle more traffic more efficiently. They also say it will create hundreds of jobs.

Air regulators argue that the city of Los Angeles’s approval for the project violates the California Environmental Quality Act because the railyard’s environmental impact report is inadequate.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, acting on behalf of several environmental and community groups, filed a similar suit Friday. Long Beach filed its own legal challenge to the project on Wednesday.

“I think the CEQA violations are just too egregious,” said NRDC attorney David Pettit, who points out that the project’s own environmental review admits health and other impacts will be worse in the area’s mostly poor and minority neighborhoods.

The NRDC also claims that the project uses creative math to hide the extent of the pollution that would come with more cargo trucks.

If a CEQA claim succeeds before a judge, BNSF will have to submit a new environmental impact report and gain a new set of approvals from port commissioners and the L.A. city council.

The railyard won approval first from L.A.’s harbor commissioners, and then from the Los Angeles City Council. 

The NRDC is also targeting how the city council handled a hearing about the project. NRDC’s Pettit criticized councilman Herb Wesson for limiting public comment, and the council for failing to consider all evidence submitted at the hearing. “The whole process was standardless in terms of even the conduct of the hearing. It was completely arbitrary,” he said.

NRDC also argues that the railyard project is “environmental racism,” in Pettit’s words, and that it violates state and federal civil rights laws.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District's legal challenge to the project is an unusual step. The AQMD's executive director, Dr. Barry Wallerstein, foreshadowed the filing when he testified against the railyard before the L.A. City Council in May. 

"BNSF [the project's backer] and the port argue that pollution levels in the adjacent community will be lower," Wallerstein told councilmembers. "Our review with our air quality experts indicates that that is not so, that the EIR [environmental impact report] overstates future pollution levels without SCIG, making the project appear more beneficial" than it would be.  

In a written statement issued after the Long Beach filing, BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent criticized the city of Long Beach for “inaccurate statements and assertions” in its complaint. Kent pointed to an analysis by Port of Los Angeles officials, who concluded that health impacts will decrease for West Long Beach and other local communities if the railyard gets built.

Kent also touted commitments BNSF made to reduce emissions, including having zero-emission cranes on site and requiring low-emission and liquid natural gas trucks to serve the railyard. 

“We are confident that when the court hears this case that it will find the City of Los Angeles acted appropriately,” Kent wrote.