Toxic Train or Green Railway? L.A. Harbor Neighbors, Environmentalists and Long Beach Officials Fight Los Angeles

By Christina Schoellkopf

The job-creating $500 million Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway plan is heading to the Los Angeles City Council for a vote on the Environmental Impact Report even as a top environmental group says working-class families and children in polluted Wilmington will be subjected to a new layer of toxic fumes from trains running near their parks and homes.

Some 200 opponents and supporters spoke at a packed L.A. Harbor Commission meeting recently. Union members pushed for the "Southern California International Gateway Project." But Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Morgan Wyenn says the trains would churn out toxins in a long-abused community: "It's literally right there, and it is heartbreaking since these people, who have already been through enough, could have a polluting facility right next door to them." How close would the trains be?

Wyenn, who grew up in L.A. during an era of horrific smog alerts during which recess was banned, calls the project "one of the most racist ideas proposed by the City for decades."

The battle pitches a low-income, working-class and minority community that has long been subjected to industrial pollution against railway giant BNSF and the powerful City of Los Angeles.

Wyenn tells L.A. Weekly that a Long Beach community to the east will also be heavily impacted, including Long Beach's Cabrillo High School:

"I have stood in the sport field of the high school adjacent to the facility, and you can see the location of the proposed rail yard."
The proposed SCIG railyard is surrounded by parks, neighborhoods and a school.
The proposed SCIG railyard is surrounded by parks, neighborhoods and a school.

The Southern California International Gateway Project (SCIG) would comprise 156 acres four miles away from the port. At the new rail yard, cargo containers would be placed on trains and hauled away.

Backers say it will boost the economy.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokeswoman Lena Kent argues that it would reduce air pollution -- in the greater region -- by slashing the haul distance for cargo. Cargo is currently hauled in trucks 24 miles from the port to Burlington Northern Santa Fe's (BNSF) railway in L.A.

Kent also says BNSF plans to use cleaner trucks built in 2010 or later, and that, more than a decade from now, her company plans to transform 90 percent of the trucks to liquefied natural gas or an equivalent fuel.

"We certainly wouldn't be spending $500 million if we did not need to," Kent says.

The L.A. City Council can either send the EIR back to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's political appointees on the Board of Harbor Commissioners, or it can back the board's unanimous vote to approve the hotly disputed EIR.

Opponents, who have slammed the plan for seven years, have vowed to fight on. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, anyone can appeal the EIR before the L.A. City Council votes on it.

The L.A. City Council vote is currently set for April 8, and the area's representative, Council District 15's Joe Buscaino, is a major backer of the rail yard.

Buscaino has posted an artist's rendering of the project on his City Council website that suggests the project is surrounded by empty wasteland.

"There is a lot at stake," says Wyenn. "We are hopeful that the L.A. City Council will see for themselves all of the problems contained in the report, will understand the concerns of their constituents living near the port, and will take a stand for the community."

The City of Long Beach has already appealed the EIR. Long Beach government affairs director Tom Modica says:

"The environmental document is insufficient. The appeal is what we are focused on right now."

But Kent argues:

"We have to respond to the increase in imports coming in, and we can at least do so in the most environmentally efficient way possible, instead of trucking it down the freeway."

Wyenn says Los Angeles officials know that air pollution will worsen in the local community. She says port officials underestimated air pollution and relied on false assumptions in the EIR. This faulty information caused city officials to wrongfully claim the plan will cut air pollution, she argues.

NRDC is prepared to sue if the L.A. City Council approves the EIR, Wyenn says.

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