When the Long Beach Harbor Commission this summer is presented with the final draft of the environmental impact report for replacement of the Gerald Desmond Bridge, the port staff anticipates approval, and construction will begin much quicker than under a previous expansion project at Pier J.
Long Beach in 2004 proposed expanding the Pier J container terminal by 115 acres, but challenges by the Natural Resources Defense Council and community groups threw up a roadblock, and the project has yet to see the light of day.
The difference between the two projects is that Long Beach and the neighboring Port of Los Angeles in 2006 unveiled their joint Clean Air Action Plan. The CAAP outlines environmental policies and processes for the development of marine transportation infrastructure, as well as measures to curtail diesel emissions from ships, trucks, trains, cargo-handling equipment and harbor craft.
Since rolling out the CAAP, Los Angeles has secured approval for expansion projects at the China Shipping Container Line and TraPac terminals, and the Long Beach Harbor Commission has approved the Middle Harbor terminal expansion project.
The clean-air plan was developed with input from federal, state and local regulatory agencies, and appears to have changed the tortuously slow and unpredictable infrastructure permitting process at the nation’s largest port complex.
“I believe we will be able to cut the EIR times from three to four years to maybe 18 months to two years,” said Rick Cameron, director of environmental planning at the Port of Long Beach.
The CAAP is not a bulletproof vest against challenges to port development, but it does provide Los Angeles, Long Beach and other ports that choose to use it as a resource with proven mitigation measures covering most types of port-generated pollution.
And Los Angeles and Long Beach are preparing to release an updated version, treating the clean-air plan as a living document that incorporates the latest technologies for reducing health-risk pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and diesel particulate matter.
The Southern California ports during the past decade went almost eight years without gaining approval for any major goods movement infrastructure project. The seminal event in the environmental challenge to port projects came in 2001 when the NRDC and community organizations sued the Port of Los Angeles over plans for a 174-acre China Shipping container terminal.
“When the China Shipping lawsuit was filed, ports were not acknowledging the health risks due to diesel emissions,” NRDC attorney Melissa Lin Perrella told a Los Angeles County Bar Association seminar this month. The NRDC followed its Los Angeles lawsuit with a study of environmental policies of the 10 largest U.S. container ports, and gave most grades of “D” and “F” for allegedly shoddy stewardship.
NRDC attorneys charged Los Angeles, in issuing the initial China Shipping lease and permit, had prepared no site-specific environmental review as required by the California Environmental Quality Act. The CEQA imposes some of the nation’s strictest environmental requirements.
In what environmentalists call a landmark settlement in 2004, Los Angeles established the first truly green lease for a container terminal at the China Shipping facility. It called for a mandatory phasing in of shore-side electrical power to operate vessels at berth, use of alternate-fuel for cargo-handling equipment and lower-emission trucks to shuttle containers to and from the terminal.
The settlement was costly for the port. It included a $10 million contribution for the purchase of new trucks, $20 million for an air-quality mitigation fund and $20 million for a community aesthetic mitigation fund.
The NRDC followed that with a challenge in Long Beach to the Pier J project. When Pier J is expanded, the terminal will cover 385 acres, although Cameron said the port has placed Pier J “on the back burner” for now.
The NRDC did not sue Long Beach but lodged an appeal under the CEQA to the Long Beach City Council. Environmentalists charged the Long Beach EIR underestimated how much air pollution the project would generate. The NRDC also charged the port failed to adopt measures to reduce diesel emissions.
Although the Long Beach challenge was settled without a lawsuit, the experiences at both ports motivated officials to develop a template for development and pollution mitigation that resulted in the 2006 Clean Air Action Plan. The ports’ clean-trucks initiatives are part of the CAAP.
“We were able to demonstrate that cutting-edge technology could in fact be used by ports,” Lin Perrella said.
The clean-air plan is one of several forces involved in bringing environmental change to the permitting process, said Sharon Rubalcava, a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Alston & Bird, who represents developers of infrastructure projects.
Los Angeles and Long Beach implement some of their clean-air rules through the use of marine terminal leases. In other instances, Rubalcava noted, they effect change through incentives, such as the Long Beach Green Flag program that rewards vessel operators for slow-steaming in coastal waters.
Cameron noted port planners in Long Beach and Los Angeles now incorporate all mandatory and voluntary measures in drawing up their EIRs because this demonstrates a comprehensive approach to reducing pollution.
Environmental regulators nationwide have learned from the Southern California experience, and they will expect developers of terminals and intermodal infrastructure to incorporate many of the proven technologies in the EIRs at other ports.
If that’s the case, developers should be prepared to spend a lot of time and money — as much as $10 million — to produce a successful EIR. “If you need to start a project within a year,” Rubalcava said, “don’t bother.”
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at email@example.com.