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Long Beach Councilmembers Vote To Sue Over Railway Project

By Samantha Mehlinger - Staff Writer

May 21, 2013 – The Long Beach City Council voted unanimously May 14 to file litigation against the City of Los Angeles over the recent approval of a railway project adjacent to West Long Beach schools and homes. Long Beach councilmembers took action during a closed session held to discuss their options.

The suit pertains to BNSF Railway Co.’s $500 million Southern International Gateway (SCIG) Project approved in March by the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners for a site in Wilmington. At the start of the city council meeting, City Attorney Robert Shannon announced, “The council voted nine to zero unanimously to initiate litigation against the City of Los Angeles, challenging its EIR [environmental impact report] relating to the SCIG project.”

This decision comes on the heels of the Los Angeles City Council’s May 8 vote to support the recommendation of its harbor commission and city staff to approve a 50-year permit with BNSF to build and operate SCIG in an area bordered by Sepulveda Boulevard, Pacific Coast Highway, the Dominguez Channel and the Terminal Island Freeway. Prior to that decision, passed on an 11-2 vote, the L.A. City Council voted to deny appeals of the project made by the City of Long Beach, the Long Beach Unified School District and several environmental groups.

Reacting to the Long Beach City Council suit, Lena Kent, BNSF’s director of public affairs, told the Business Journal, “We are disappointed by the City’s decision to litigate, because we are confident this project will bring much-needed jobs, traffic relief and air quality improvements for Long Beach residents. Nevertheless, BNSF remains committed to working with Long Beach to resolve its concerns and make this project, and its many benefits, a reality.”

Shannon says the city obtained outside counsel, “a prominent law firm in San Francisco.” He anticipates the lawsuit will be filed in early June and may be combined with other lawsuits by the court. “It is appropriate that it all be joined in one lawsuit because the issues, of course, are really identical.”

David Pettit, director of the Southern California air program and urban program for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), confirms NRDC is following up with plans to file litigation as well.

NRDC, like Long Beach, appealed SCIG’s EIR on the grounds that it does not meet requirements set by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The appeal stated, “This project exudes environmental injustice.”

Pettit says under CEQA, a party filing a lawsuit “can ask the lead agency, which is in this case is the city, to mediate” before filing a suit. He says this request was made in writing. “I haven’t heard back yet.”

There are two claims for litigation, according to Pettit. One, which he first brought up at the city council meeting, is that the project violates civil rights. He explains that the EIR “admits that the low-income minority communities near the port will be the worst affected by the air pollution and health issues from the SCIG project.” The other cause for litigation is that SCIG’s EIR violates CEQA.

Previously, both the Southern California Air Quality Management District and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health recommended that, because of health concerns from the planned project, the EIR be sent back to Los Angeles harbor commissioners for further revision.

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster addressed the Los Angeles City Council at the May 8 meeting. He presented his concerns by the numbers, stating, “SCIG will take what is essentially a flat piece of land and activate it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with 8,200 truck trips every day carrying 1.5 million containers in the immediate vicinity of four schools.”

Mayor Foster also discussed job impacts. “You heard about creation of jobs? This thing creates about 400 plus jobs on a permanent basis, but it displaces 1,200 good jobs right now.” He said these jobs are in the City of Long Beach.

The mayor was referring to companies currently located on the approximate 150-acre project site, including Long Beach-based California Cartage, a 70-year-old trucking company with a fleet of “green” trucks and employing upwards of 1,000 people. Other firms impacted include Three Rivers Trucking and L.A. Harbor Grain Terminal.