Environment & Science

Judge halts planned Port of LA rail yard over pollution concerns

Trucks wait to be loaded at the Port of Los Angeles Wednesday,  Dec. 5, 2012 in Los Angeles.
Trucks wait to be loaded at the Port of Los Angeles Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 in Los Angeles.
Nick Ut/AP

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In a victory for environmentalists, a superior court judge Wednesday put a halt to a $500 million rail yard project near the Port of Los Angeles.

“Today is a wonderful day for clean air in Los Angeles,” said Morgan Wyenn, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the organizations that filed suit against the rail project.

In May 2013, the Los Angeles City Council approved a plan to build a 153-acre rail transfer facility known as the Southern California International Gateway project. Groups like the NRDC said the city and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company did not consider all environmental consequences from the project, which would have abutted neighborhoods in Wilmington and Long Beach. 

“This is a huge win for Long Beach, and in particular our Westside residents who would have been dramatically impacted by this proposed project," Long Beach Mayor Garcia said in a statement. 

The project was meant to increase efficiency at the Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach. Under the plan, trucks moving cargo from ships to rail lines would only have had to drive about four miles as opposed to about 20 miles on their existing route. The city of Los Angeles and  Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway said cutting down on trucking routes would decrease pollution.

But the plan drew criticism from community members and environmental groups who said putting the rail yard between Wilmington and the Lower West Side of Long Beach would bring increased truck traffic and air pollution to an area near schools and other community hubs.

It was estimated the project would have drawn as many as 8,200 trucks a day to an area already dealing with some of the worst air quality in the nation. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the diesel trucks that work them have been identified as the primary source for particulate pollution in the area. 

“This is just not the right location for a rail yard,” Wyenn said. “Anytime you concentrate that many trucks in one small area, the air pollution for that area is going to increase, no matter the way you look at it.”

Multiple lawsuits from environmentalists, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Long Beach School District, the City of Long Beach, and the State Attorney General were filed against the city of Los Angeles and BNSF. Judge Barry P. Goode of the Contra Costa Superior Court issued one consolidated ruling for all of the suits.

Wyenn said the project’s backers will have to go back to the drawing board now to find a way to approach the project that meets stricter environmental guidelines.

“I think the first question the port should ask is does it need this new rail yard capacity and if it does, can it put it somewhere farther from the community to keep people safe?” Wyenn said.

In a statement, the Port of Los Angeles said, "We are disappointed with the court ruling that delays or deprives the region of many environmental benefits and both ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach of important rail infrastructure."

For its part, BNSF Railway Company said in a statement it will continue to work with the port to determine how to move forward.