Long Beach City Council Unanimously Sides with Harbor Commissioners on Controversial Coal, Petcoke Export Extensions

Despite outcries from multiple environmental groups, the Long Beach City Council unanimously voted to uphold the Port of Long Beach (POLB) Board of Harbor Commissioners’ decision to continue exporting coal and petcoke.

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 9.45.03 AMPOLB extended two export agreements: one with Metropolitan Stevedore Company (MSC), a 20-year extension agreement that will permit MSC to continue exporting coal out of POLB; and another agreement with Oxbow Carbon and Minerals, LLC (Oxbow), currently under a sublease with MSC, which extends for 15 years.

POLB spokesperson Art Wong had emphasized that the agreements were simply extending an existing use and do not increase capacity, legal under California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) law.

“The Harbor Department determined that the lease extensions were categorically exempt and thus did not require any further environmental analysis,” said Heather Tomley, Director of Environmental Planning for the Harbor Department at POLB. “The two agreements the Harbor Commissioners approved on June 9 allow existing operations to continue and do not increase capacity.”

However, the Sierra Club, Communities for a Better Environment, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Earthjustice filed their appeal in late June, claimed that the extension of the two leases violates CEQA by way of a special aspect of the agreement: a Guaranteed Minimum Annual Throughput (GMT or Minimum Tonnage), which stipulated economic penalties against Oxbow should the company not reach a certain export value per year of the first five years of its lease.

Tomley, however, disagreed. She noted that the GMT stipulation is part of POLB’s tariff charges, not a stipulation about how much coal Oxbow exports. In other words, according to Tomley, even if Oxbow exported zero tons of coal, they would still pay POLB the tariff charge as if they exported the maximum amount they’re permitted to export.

Adrian Martinez, attorney for Earthjustice, noted not only the major global problems associated with coal and petcoke—including the fact that coal is the largest contributor to climate change—but the fact that there are local consequences as well, such as coal dust and the implications of the possible derailments of trains carrying coal and pet coke.

Showing pictures of uncovered train cars, Martinez and other appellants and dissenters fought for nearly two hours—and ultimately failed—at convincing the Council that the lease extensions violated CEQA and were ultimately unhealthy for Long Beach.

“The Port operations are world class,” said 8th District Councilmember Al Austin. “Yes, we have black dust still and we can’t determine where it specifically comes from—the freeways or… But in terms of regulating the shipment of coal along the rail roads—I personally don’t think that is in the purview of this Council.”

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
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