By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"The court decision proves that growth doesn't have to come at the expense of the public's health," said NRDC attorney Gail Ruderman Feuer. "There had been a perception that pollution was a cost of doing business, but, in fact, it resulted from years of the port skirting environmental laws."
The NRDC suit came about after port officials asked the city in 2001 for an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a law that requires major projects to undergo environmental review and to address environmental consequences of the project. The China Shipping terminal the port officials wanted to build would eventually cover 174 acres. They told City Council members that the requirements of CEQA had been met by two earlier environmental studies. One of these studies had reached the astonishing conclusion that a new terminal would reduce air pollution by bringing in larger ships.
At the time, the port's request received little attention. San Pedro is at the southernmost edge of the sprawling city of Los Angeles; for most people, it is simply off the map. There was a protest or two from progressive City Council members, but on the advice of then-City Attorney James Hahn, the council approved the port's request.
When construction began, San Pedro residents, alarmed by yet another in a series of major port expansions, contacted the NRDC. Its attorneys fought for nearly two years to force the port to conduct a more comprehensive review of the environmental effects of the China Shipping terminal, which will bring 260 new container ships and more than 1 million trucks a year into a region already beset by severe air pollution.
An appellate court finally decided in favor of the environmentalists in October, shutting down construction of the project's first phase, a 1,200-foot wharf. To paraphrase the judges, the port's attempt to pass off environmental reviews of previous projects as adequate for the China Shipping terminal was little more than an exercise in paper shuffling.
Two weeks ago, the court approved a settlement in which the Port of Los Angeles agreed to establish a $50 million fund to control pollution from existing port facilities and improve the nearby communities of Wilmington and San Pedro. In addition, the port will electrify the dock at the China Shipping terminal and pay up to $5 million to help China Shipping retrofit its cargo ships so they can plug in to electric power, a process called "cold-ironing." In exchange, the port will be able to finish construction of the wharf, which is already 90 percent built. According to the terms of the settlement, the port still has to complete a review of the wharf and terminal under CEQA, which will almost certainly result in further mitigation. The final bill could reach $100 million, according to the NRDC's Ruderman Feuer.
Nicholas Tonsich, an attorney appointed by Mayor Hahn to head the harbor commission as part of a much-touted effort to reform the port, said he welcomes the settlement. "This settlement allows the port to do what we've wanted to do anyway, to work with the community," said Tonsich. "It's a win-win situation."
Tonsich acknowledges that there are problems at the port. But he says that port officials have learned their lesson. "I can assure you that it won't happen again," he said. "I can assure you that no lease will be signed without proper environmental review."
Despite Tonsich's assurances, a memorandum of understanding between the port and the Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine Corp. leaked to the L.A. Weekly suggests that it may take more than a single lawsuit to force the port to change its approach. The confidential memo, dated November 24, 2002 — a month after the port was trounced in court by NRDC lawyers — promised 137 acres to Evergreen but included an escape clause in case the project doesn't meet environmental standards. By March, though, the port still had not made the agreement public, so there was no way for citizens or environmentalists to weigh in on the air-quality questions raised by yet another expansion. This is typical of the port's culture of secrecy, says Ruderman Feuer.
Now, federal authorities are investigating Pier 400 terminal, the port's biggest project prior to the China Shipping terminal, which was begun in 1992. Brian Moore, the chief of programs and project management at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Southern California, confirmed that the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command is investigating whether the port violated the law when it built the terminal by putting the expansion of container facilities ahead of community safety concerns.
Critics say that under the regime of port executive director Larry Keller, the Port of Los Angeles has made attracting new business a top priority. "Keller adopted the approach of, 'We'll promise you everything, then we'll lock the door and figure out how to do it later,'" said a former high-level port official, who asked to remain anonymous.
THE UNDERREPORTED STORY OF UNfettered global capitalism is the way it turns the First World into the Third World. For example, though they are right next door, Wilmington and San Pedro have been growing apart for decades. Wilmington is so poor that one neighborhood was actually known as the Third World until the Alameda Corridor rail line displaced its junkyards and rooster coops. Yet San Pedro residents note with humorless irony that the main drag of downtrodden Wilmington, with its taco stands and bad-credit furniture stores, is more vibrant than the depressed downtown of their white, middle-class community.