Last week’s $50 million settlement between the Port of Los Angeles and the communities of San Pedro and Wilmington is “a nice down payment on dealing with the environmental impacts of the port, but the bill is nowhere near paid in full,” said Noel Park of the San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners Coalition.

Park’s words may sound like sour grapes, but the settlement was the first victory for community members in a decades-long conflict known as “The Hundred Years’ War.” Since the 1970s, the Port of Los Angeles has rapidly expanded to meet a growing demand for foreign imports. The port is now the biggest in the country. It is also the Los Angeles basin’s single largest source of diesel-particulate pollution, which causes cancer, lung disease, birth defects and other serious ailments. People who live in Wilmington and San Pedro, which lie adjacent to the port, are disproportionately affected by the diesel pollution. The South Coast Air Quality Management District estimates that 70 percent of the cancer risk caused by pollution in the region can be traced to diesel emissions.

Under the settlement, the port must set aside $50 million to combat air pollution and industrial blight. Of that money, $10 million will help so-called independent truckers — low-paid, nonunion truck drivers who own their trucks but subcontract with trucking companies — to retrofit their aging vehicles with pollution-control devices. The communities of Wilmington and San Pedro will divide $20 million for open space, parks and waterfront development.

In addition, the port will electrify docks at the newly constructed China Shipping terminal so large cargo ships can plug into dockside power rather than letting their diesel engines idle in port. The port also will spend up to $5 million to help China Shipping retrofit its cargo ships to use electricity.

In return, the Port of Los Angeles can finish construction of the 1,200-foot wharf that had been shut down by an appellate court decision in October. This is the first phase of a terminal that will eventually cover as much as 174 acres.

“It’s a win-win situation for everyone. It gives us an opportunity to work with the community on goals that we share,” said Harbor Commission President Nick Tonsich, who joined the port as part of Mayor James Hahn’s bid to reform the troubled agency.

But the settlement could be the last hurrah for port executive director Larry Keller. Battles between the port and the community intensified after the appointment of Keller, who has overseen two major expansion projects that have drawn fire from both environmentalists and law enforcement agencies.

Now Keller’s job may be on the line as a result of the China Shipping case. Nick Tonsich acknowledged problems with the port’s corporate culture. When asked if that culture could change without major personnel changes, Tonsich said: “We’re going to step back and try to analyze that. We have a window to do that now.”

Whether or not Keller gets his walking papers, last week’s settlement is just the beginning, community activists say. More change will be required for the port to meet Mayor James Hahn’s vaunted policy of “no net increase” of air pollution. “This settlement won’t even get this one terminal to no net increase,” said Park. “They’ve been building the port for 40, 50 years and they’ve never had to deal with this stuff.”

Park and other community activists say they wouldn’t have succeeded in forcing change at the port without the involvement of Natural Resources Defense Council attorneys Gail Ruderman Feuer and Julie Masters, who have spent two years working on this case. In October, an appellate court found that the port had violated the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires agencies to mitigate when their activities harm the environment. The justices found that the port had failed to address the impacts of the China Shipping terminal, a major new facility that would bring 260 ships and 90,000 trucks to a region already hard-hit by diesel-related health problems.

The justices sent the port back to work on a new environmental review. In the meantime, the port had to pay at least $1 million a month to keep the terminal mothballed, according to Tonsich. As the meter ran, concerns mounted that the China Shipping corporation and contractors who had been held up by the environmentalist lawsuit would call their own lawyers.

Now Tonsich says 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.”

Park says he doesn’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but he’s not relaxing his vigilance. “We hope we’re going to a new era,” said Park. “But past performance has taught us to keep our powder dry.”

LA Weekly