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NRDC Threatens to Sue Over L.A. Council’s Approval of BNSF Rail Yard

The Los Angeles City Council approved BNSF Railway’s $500 million near-dock rail yard Wednesday, citing “cut-throat” competition from other North American ports looking to take advantage of the widening of the Panama Canal.

Port officials said the Southern California Intermodal Gateway, a 153-acre rail yard about four miles from the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, also has the potential to improve air quality in Southern California.

Council members worried that if cargo handling capabilities at Los Angeles’ port are not improved, ships could bypass West Coast ports via the Panama Canal, which is scheduled to open a new set of locks to accommodate larger ships in 2015,

Before the vote, Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer David Pettit told the council he planned to file a lawsuit if the project was approved, saying the rail yard could constitute violations of the state Environmental Quality Act and civil rights law.

The vote drew around 500 people, who filled the council chamber and a nearby room at Los Angeles City Hall.

Harbor-area councilman Joe Buscaino, whose constituents would be the most affected, called it “a good and sound environmental project” that would create “actual green jobs” and take about 1.5 million trucks off the road.

Wednesday’s 11-2 vote approved environmental findings necessary for the overall project’s approval, a lease agreement to allow BNSF to build on port property, as well as a 50-year permit to construct and operate the facility.

Council members Jan Perry and Bernard Parks voted against the project, saying there were too many unanswered questions, especially because it came to City Council without any committee hearings.

Parks said he was concerned by the diversity of groups opposed to the project.

The council denied appeals by detractors, including the city of Long Beach, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Long Beach Unified School District, environmental justice groups and trucking businesses.

Long Beach and Wilmington residents and members of environmental groups who oppose  the project said it would be too close to schools and homes.

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster told the council that the two cities have successfully collaborated on port projects in the past, but the BNSF project was different.

“Frankly these communities deserve better,” he said.

The project is “shockingly close to homes,” he said.

Some homes are only about 20 feet away from project boundaries, and no one is providing funding for the “bare minimum of air filters and new windows.”

“This project can be made better,” but the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, which shepherded the project through a seven-year long process, has not done anything to improve it, Foster said.\

Barry Wallerstein of the South Coast Air Quality Management District said that in the agency’s “entire history” it has never opposed an infrastructure project until Wednesday.

“We took this step because the pollution for SCIG would harm public health,” and because the project does not adequately address environmental concerns, he said.

Opponents urged the council to send back to the Harbor Commission the environmental impact report and lease agreement, saying there were no guarantees that BNSF would be a zero-emissions operator.

A BNSF representative Wednesday told the council that the technology is not yet up to their standards. Port officials said they believe BNSF is committed to “goals” in their agreement recommending they use mostly zero-emission technologies at the railyard, and pointed to a five-year “re-opener” that would allow them to check in to see if the company is on track.

Representatives of labor and business groups, including the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said the project would help keep jobs in region.

Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, said jobs at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are “under siege” from “ports along the  East Coast, the West Coast and the Gulf of Mexico that are expanding their capacity everyday to take advantage of the widening of the Panama Canal.”

In addition, he contends, BNSF’s project would be the “greenest intermodal yard in the United States.”