When the Los Angeles City Council on May 8 approved the final environmental impact report for construction of BNSF Railway’s $500 million near-dock intermodal yard in Southern California, the approval proved to be the beginning of a journey rather than the end of a saga.
Formal challenges to the adequacy of the EIR are beginning to surface, with political, environmental and community entities expressing concern about truck and rail pollution at the yard. “Facilitated negotiations” with Los Angeles and BNSF Railway on one side and Long Beach on the other began on Wednesday, and formal legal challenges are expected to be filed soon.
BNSF’s Southern California International Gateway will be located four miles from the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex. Trains carrying intermodal containers to the eastern half of the country will be assembled there. At present, BNSF’s intermodal containers are trucked 24 miles to its Hobart yard near downtown Los Angeles.
While removing 1 million truck trips a year from the congested I-710 freeway, and reducing the drayage distance to only four miles sounds like a good logistical and environmental move, residents in a west Long Beach neighborhood located near the SCIG site do not want the rail facility in their back yard.
Residents say their neighborhood already has to deal with truck and rail traffic generated by Union Pacific’s Intermodal Container Transfer Facility, which is adjacent to the proposed SCIG site. The city of Long Beach will represent its west side neighborhood with a legal challenge if necessary.
The Natural Resources Defense Council requested that the Port of Los Angeles, the lead agency for the SCIG project, participate in formal mediation talks under the California Environmental Quality Act. The NRDC over the past decade has successfully used the CEQA law to block or delay port-related projects. Los Angeles rejected the NRDC request.
NRDC will likely file suit soon, said David Pettit, the environmental organization’s lead attorney in Los Angeles. CEQA contains tight deadlines for legal challenges, and the June 10 deadline is approaching. The filing will trigger a CEQA requirement for mediation, but if mediation fails to bring a solution, the NRDC will continue with it lawsuit, Pettit said.
The SCIG project involves two municipal jurisdictions. The 156-acre site in located in an industrial area of Los Angeles, but it borders a west Long Beach neighborhood with schools and residences.
SCIG, in a commercial sense, will benefit both ports because BNSF serves Long Beach as well as Los Angeles. The Long Beach City Council, which is taking the side of the residents, has already indicated it will file suit if the facilitated talks fail to produce an acceptable plan.
BNSF said it is committed to building the greenest intermodal yard in the country, with electric cargo-handling equipment and requirements for the cleanest diesel and natural gas trucks on the market.
Pettit said ideally SCIG should be built on-dock at the port complex. However, if that option is not feasible because of space and transportation logistics limitations, BNSF must commit to a path to zero-emission technology when that technology is commercially feasible, he said.
BNSF and the Port of Los Angeles have been working on the EIR for years, but the beginning of construction is at least a year away because industrial and commercial tenants on the site must move. BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said the railroad has given the tenants one year to vacate the property.
When the date for ground-breaking approaches, NRDC will likely file another court action asking for an injunction to block construction, Pettit said. Under CEQA, a request for an injunction can be filed when construction is imminent, he said.