Fuming Neighbors

Every now and then The New York Times prints something worthwhile. On April 11th, Jennifer Medina sent this story in from Long Beach, California.

“A Busy California Port Seeks to Grow, But a Neighbor Objects”, is how she began her submission.

“Just before the officials at the Port of Los Angeles unanimously approved a plan for a vast new railyard last month,” she wrote, “the mayor of Long Beach was incensed. How dare they, he angrily asked at a public meeting, value the lives of residents on Los Angeles’s side of the border more than those who live in his city.

“It was a provocative statement from the mayor of this city of nearly half a million people, where the port, one of the busiest in the nation, has long driven the economy. For years, Mayor Bob Foster said, he has favored development projects in the region, looking for ways for the port to bring in more business. But the $ 500 million project by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway would increase traffic and pollution and have a devastating effect on residents in adjacent working-class neighborhoods, he said.

“‘This is really taking advantage of poor people for the advantage of others,’ Mr. Foster said in an interview. ‘The City of Los Angeles and a major corporation are really treating Long Beach in a deplorable manner – one city is literally ignoring another city’s residents. We’re asking them to be clean and to be a good neighbor and help mitigate this, but they’re basically thumbing their nose at us.’

“The fight over the proposed railyard, which would serve as a large center for trains that move shipping containers from the Port of Los Angeles to other parts of the country, is the region’s biggest battle yet over threatened competition from the expansion of the Panama Canal, set to be completed by 2015.

“Community activists say the project’s supporters have ignored the negative effects it would have on the neighborhood already hurt by pollution, but those who back it contend that it is the most environmentally friendly way to grow business in the region and maintain the port’s dominance.

“‘We have to start moving things faster and cleaner, and we have to have the infrastructure to do that as close to the port as you can, which is what this does,’ said Wally Baker, the chairman of Beat the Canal, a coalition of industry and labor groups supporting projects that they say will bring thousands of jobs to the area. ‘The last thing we want to do is create more uncertainty. That’s the kind of goofy thing that drives business away from California.’

“The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have long been economic engines for the region, which is now home to the largest hub of distribution warehouses that sort the imported goods before they are sent to retailers across the country.

“Roughly 40 percent of the country’s container imports, including cars, clothing and household items, mostly from Asia, pass through the two ports, making it the sixth-busiest harbor in the world. Many worry that competition with ports on the East Coast is the most important threat, because so many of the products that arrive in Long Beach and Los Angeles are on their way elsewhere, often crisscrossing though a web of trains and trucks to get to consumers in the East.

“Other ports along the East and Gulf Coats are rushing to make significant changes to compete with the widened Panama Canal. Last year, the Obama administration moved to speed up the review process to deepen the harbor for many of the ports, saying that deeper harbors would help to create new jobs and strengthen the economy.

“Mr. Baker’s group has estimated that the ports could lose 100,000 jobs once the Panama Canal expansion allows larger ships to bypass California and go directly to the East Coast. Without the Canal’s expansion, these larger ships could not fit through the waterway. And while Mr. Foster and Long Beach port officials have said that they do not see an immediate threat in the expansion, Los Angeles officials seem to disagree.

“David Arian, a retired longshoreman and the vice chairman of the commission that oversees the Port of Los Angeles, called the railyard ‘essential to our future.’

“‘It is the only way to stay competitive, it’s the only way to deal with the canal,’ he said during the hearing in March to approve the project. ‘It’s the only way we’re going to get that market share.’

“Officials from the port declined to comment further, concerned that they could provide more fodder for a lawsuit from the plan’s opponents.

“The ports have long been known as the biggest contributors to air pollution in the region, with local officials complaining that such pollution has caused an epidemic of asthma, stunted lung development in children and chronic lung disease in adults.

“But in recent years the ports have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up their operations. In 2006, they approved policies that now ban the use of any truck built before 2007. Both ports are also expanding plans to require some of the ships to shut down their power generators, which run on diesel fuel, and instead ‘plug in’ and use the electric power grid at the docks.

“The railyard project, known as the Southern California International Gateway, would create a 153-acre cargo depot just off Interstate 710 along the western edge of Long Beach, bordering Los Angeles. Roughly 5,500 trucks would use it daily, according to a report by the Los Angeles Harbor Department.

“Los Angeles port and railway officials say that taking trucks off the local freeway and shortening the distance they must travel will improve the air quality and lower the health risk for the region. They have also promised to spend $ 100 million on energy-efficient machinery and other technologies for the project.

“‘We have a plan that helps the region as a whole, both with jobs and the economy, and in addition the environmental impact is better, not worse,’ said Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for the rail company.

“‘Why in the world would you not want to get behind a project that does all that?’

“But Andrea Hricko, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California who has evaluated the effect of pollution in the area, dismissed the claim as misleading, because the railyard would increase capacity in the region over all.

“The railyard would replace a handful of trucking and other industrial companies that sit on the large plot of land just behind the working class residential neighborhood of West Long Beach, which local residents already refer to as the ‘diesel death zone’ because of the proximity of so many trucks.

“The local park was mostly empty one recent afternoon, perhaps because it was impossible to escape the smell from the exhaust coming from the trucks several feet away.

“‘People in this neighborhood completely lose,’ Ms. Hricko said. ‘There is no question about it, you cannot have thousands of trucks coming in each day and say that is an improvement.’

“Mr. Foster, Long Beach’s mayor, said he wanted a buffer park between the railyard and residential areas, along with a stronger commitment to zero emission technology for the future and money to help residents to install better windows and air filtration systems.

“John Cross, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 60 years and is now the president of the West Long Beach Residential Association, dismissed the idea that because the area is already near an industrial site, more should be added.

“‘If you have a pile of you-know-what, you don’t just add more on it because it’s there.’ he said.”-
[On November 29th, 2006, in our Vol. IX, Art. 23, we wrote: “In ‘Paying With Our Health: The Real Cost of Freight Transportation in California,’ the authors of that report propose that major corporations relying on cheap freight transportation should provide funding for the cleanup of the toxic cloud of smoke and soot left behind in low-income communities.

“According to the study, the state estimates that 2,400 Californians die prematurely every year from illnesses linked to pollution emitted by the trucks, trains, ships and cargo-handling equipment used to move goods into and out of the state’s ports … but in objecting to the suggestion that industry should bear the responsibility and the cost of this assault on the public, merchants have taken the position that millions of consumers are the beneficiaries of the goods-movement industry … Those ‘costs’ are not just paid in dollars and cents, by the way. Along with the 2,400 premature deaths cited by the aforementioned study, there are 2,380 hospital admissions, 360,000 missed workdays and 1,100 missed school days … all directly attributed to pollution from the intermodal industry.

“‘Poor communities are subsidizing cheap goods for the rest of California with their health,’ complained one of the authors.”-] And our complaint? King ports! They’re criminal!