Time is ticking down for residents who want to comment on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) project — a proposal that would build a 185-acre rail yard structure along the western border of Long Beach.
A second environmental impact report (EIR) for SCIG was released on Sept. 27 by the Port of Los Angeles. The final comment period ends on Nov. 9. The issue has been complex because the city of Los Angeles and the Port of Los Angeles are the controlling government bodies presiding over the process — but West Long Beach might be the most impacted residential area.
“One of the issues here is that it is literally on the border,” Seventh District Councilman James Johnson said. “It’s technically in the city of Los Angeles, but one foot from West Long Beach. We have a project in Los Angeles that’s primary negative effect will be on Long Beach and Long Beach residents, that’s the big picture.”
BNSF first proposed SCIG in 2005. It is now a $500 million project that rail officials said they hope to begin construction on in 2013 and finish by 2015 so that operation can begin in 2016. It would serve both the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, but the LA port has jurisdiction because of its location.
There was a public meeting for comment on the recirculated (second) EIR on Oct. 18. Johnson and others are upset that there has not been a second meeting specifically in Long Beach — which was the case during the first EIR process.
“With the new EIR, they refused to have a meeting with West Long Beach,” Johnson said. “I think it is outrageous to have come out and explained the project to the community, make radical changes to that and then to not come back to that very same community.”
Port officials argued that Wilmington only is about 4 miles away from the Sept. 18 meeting location and that plenty of Long Beach residents were in attendance — bus transportation was offered. Christopher Cannon, director of environmental management for the Port of Los Angeles, said he would be happy to have a meeting on the new findings in the EIR in Long Beach — but the port only would have the one public meeting for comment before the final EIR.
SCIG will be built on the area between Pacific Coast Highway, Terminal Island Freeway, Dominguez Channel and Sepulveda Boulevard. Currently, there are a number of trucking companies occupying the space — many of those would have to be relocated if the project moves forward.
BNSF Director of Public Affairs Lena Kent said BNSF started looking for sites in 2002, with an eye toward the fact that cargo continued to grow at the ports. BNSF has a rail yard in Los Angeles called the Hobart facility — it requires trucks to drive about 25 miles out of the ports.
The argument over the facility has boiled down to residents, BNSF, each Chamber of Commerce, several unions against vocal residents and environmental groups.
West Long Beach Association President John Cross said he is very skeptical of the project — he believes residents would rather have no rail yard.
“We’re adamantly opposed,” he said. “We’ve been living next to one since 1986, when Union Pacific came in. We have higher asthma rates than in almost any other part of California. No matter what they put in the EIR, we will be opposed to it because of major health concerns.”
There are five schools in the area and at least one childcare facility, as well as Century Villages at Cabrillo. Cross pointed to Hudson Elementary School, which has an asthma rate of about 15% — which is double the rest of the district — as an example of the taxed air the area is already breathing.
The SCIG plan calls for a reduction of 1.5 million trucks off the 710 Freeway. Of the $500 million, about $100 million is committed to green energy. By 2026, at least 90% of the truck fleet there would have to be LNG or equivalent. Cranes at the facility would be electric.
“The draft EIR done by an independent third party air quality expert includes modeling that shows an improvement in air quality and health risk, not only for the region, but for the area immediately adjacent to the proposed facility,” Kent said.
She added that BNSF has agreed to a designated path away from residential areas for the trucks entering the rail yard.
Cross said he estimates there are about 300,000 trucks annually his neighborhood is dealing with the current operation, so how having 1.5 million in concentration to the immediate area help? He also said he worries about the dozen train trips a day.
Officials at the South Coast Air Quality Management District said they are concerned by how the calculations were made for emissions for the region as a whole — including Hobart.
“What will impact the residents there, is the fact that BNSF is not making a commitment to zero emission technology,” spokesman Sam Atwood said. “We think they need to make this commitment.”
Trains also are a point of contention. BNSF will be installing Tier 2 trains, which currently are the cleanest on the market, but Tier 4 locomotives should be released in 2015.
In the second EIR, at least some gains were made, opponents said, and they will continue pushing for more. The analysis now uses 2010 for environmental baselines (previously 2005), a 50-year operation period, 2009 San Pedro Bay Ports cargo demand forecast and updated air quality/traffic/noise/census data. BNSF agreed to contribute up to $3 million to the joint Port Technology Advancement Program to further zero emission good movement technologies.
Once the recirculated EIR comment period ends, Port of Los Angeles spokesman Phillip Sanfield said he expects a vote by the Los Angeles Harbor Commission by the end of the year or early 2013 — public comment would be allowed there in regards to the final EIR. Should it pass there, it could be appealed to the Los Angeles City Council.
For the complete EIR, visit www.portoflosangeles.org. Comments can me mailed to Christopher Cannon, Director of Environmental Management, Port of Los Angeles, 425 S. Palos Verdes St., San Pedro, CA 90731. Or, comments can be submitted online by emailing email@example.com.