Wednesday marks the first time members of the public get to sound off on a draft environmental report regarding a potential rail yard expansion at the Port of Long Beach, one that could both expand the port’s capability to offload ships but also expose the West Long Beach community to continued pollution.
The January 11 meeting is the first of two public meetings scheduled by the port within the 60-day review period of the draft EIR which was made public last month. The Port is hoping to expand its current rail project operating out of Port B which sits west of Downtown Long Beach and south of Anaheim Street. The second meeting is scheduled for January 18.
If the project is approved, the Port says that it will allow it to better accommodate expected traffic that it calculates will bring goods into its docks. The Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles handle roughly 40 percent of all goods brought into the country by ship and are looking for ways to increase the percentage of those goods that are moved off the docks by train rather than trucks.
The expansion of the current track system at Pier B would allow for trains up to 10,000 feet long to provide a more efficient on-dock transfer experience potentially eliminating traffic congestion caused by trucks that currently move the cargo off the dock. The Port estimates that each full train could eliminate up to 750 truck trips.
The expansion has three outlined alternatives with the one encompassing the largest footprint requiring the acquisition of land as far north as 12th Street. If the project goes that route it would require a vote by the Long Beach City Council to approve the land sale.
The proposed rail project's footprint as outlined in the draft environmental report.
If approved, the 182-acre project is expected to be carried out in a three phases and take seven years to complete with a projected opening of 2025. It could result in some permanent street closures to the north of the current rail site as well as the removal of some of the ramps connecting to the Shoemaker Bridge.
Because the land that could potentially be acquired is currently commercial space no residential units would be lost.
There could be an impact, though, on the residences that do exist to the north and east of the project. While the project could allow the port to move more cargo faster, the draft EIR states that the construction of the project and the ongoing operation of it could produce greenhouse gases that are “significant but unavoidable” in some cases.
Whether taking trucks off the streets will result in a net loss or gain for emissions is unclear but those emissions could be better concentrated around the port facility itself rather than spread up and down the west side of the city as trucks idle on the 710 Freeway as they currently do.
“I think we do get a benefit,” said Richard Cameron, Port of Long Beach managing director of Planning and Environmental Affairs. “In terms in whether or not we get an overall reduction, there’s no overall reduction. I think what we get is the positive effect of traffic congestion being made less by virtue of having the mode switch from truck to rail.”
The rail project would be operated by Pacific Harbor Line, which has been recognized as the first railroad in the nation to have converted its fleet to clean diesel locomotives and currently operates at Pier B.
Some of the items that the draft EIR identifies as significant and unavoidable impacts are the levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, compounds that form ozone and can react with water to make nitric acid and end up in soil. Exposure to ozone can lead to lung damage and worsen chronic respiratory illness while prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide has been linked to increased risk of heart disease.
The concentrations projected in the draft EIR for both construction and operation of the yard would exceed the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s daily threshold of significance. One of the bigger contributors to these emissions once the project is underway was identified as the line haul locomotives that would be pulling the trains.
The draft EIR does point out that current regulations do not provide for a metric for environmental justice and the document acknowledges that because of the existing population in the vicinity of the proposed project area—largely minority and low-income—the worst effects of pollution would be felt by those communities.
“While the area surrounding the Project site is primarily industrial and commercial, there are nearby residences in Long Beach and the Wilmington community that include predominantly low-income and minority populations,” the draft EIR states. “Significant and unavoidable air quality impacts would constitute a disproportionately high and adverse effect on low-income and/or minority populations.”
Cameron explained that the feasibility of fully mitigating certain emission-related pollution comes down to technology. In some cases, those technologies just don’t exist and therefore the option to use them is not in play.
“In some cases the technologies for further reducing emissions are just not available,” Cameron said. “For instance, if the only way we could get under that threshold was some kind of technology that doesn’t exist like a natural gas locomotive or going electric and not having emissions at all, we’d have to evaluate that and determine if it were feasible or not for this project in able to incorporate it.”
West Long Beach residents on average have a life expectancy that is about five years less than residents in East Long Beach according to a July 2013 community health assessment put out by the Long Beach Health Department. The city as a whole has an asthma rate that hovers around 15 percent, outpacing the county average by a few percentage points. The assessment showed that over 55,000 Long Beach residents live with the condition.
One of the mitigation measures proposed by the draft EIR is the implementation and funding of a community grant program that will provide for community-based greenhouse gas reduction programs to help cancel out some of the pollution.
Cameron noted that the port has contributed millions of dollars to such programs to help balance out the unmitigated impacts that port projects have created in the past. The dollars are invested in communities like West Long Beach in the form of gardens, trees and more efficient street lights, or city wide, in the form of electric buses.
Both the Gerald Desmond Bridge and the Middle Harbor are examples of port projects that resulted in money being funneled into community grant programs with the Middle Harbor revenue reaching $15 million.
How the recent legal issues involved with the Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) project might affect this one is unclear. The SCIG project which would have made its home in the City of Los Angeles but border the City of Long Beach, was the focus of a lawsuit that Long Beach won in mid-2016 on grounds that the EIR was faulty.
The ruling handed down by a Contra Costa Superior Court Judge in July found that the EIR presented by Los Angeles did not adequately measure the noise or greenhouse gas emissions that would be produced by the SCIG rail yard project. The ruling has since been appealed.
A portion of this project would require approval by the Los Angeles City Council and LA’s city planning department would have to give final authorization for building permits once state and city coastal requirements are outlined. Los Angeles would also have a hand in approving any street vacations as outlined in the proposed project that would close down portions of several streets as far north as 12th Street and would require some alignments that stretch into the City of Los Angeles.
The project’s footprint would span across both port facilities and be utilized by both entities. Cameron said that at this point it’s too early to speculate on that becoming an issue as the project is still in the environmental review stages but said that the project would be mutually beneficial for both complexes and is hopeful that the SCIG process doesn’t bleed into the Pier B project.
“Hopefully the SCIG process has kind of run its course and everyone can focus on what we need to do overall in our operations," Cameron said. "I think we need to look at this more from ‘what’s the most important way for the two ports and our respective cities to work together to enhance efficiencies and port operations that equal environmental benefit and less impacts on our communities.”
Public input from both meetings will be compiled and added to the final EIR and could possibly result in further mitigation efforts. The current projection for the final EIR to to be considered by the Board of Harbor Commissioners is mid- to late-summer.