Suit Cites CEQA Violations Among Otheer Issues, Mediation Possible
By Samantha Mehlinger - Staff Writer
June 18, 2013 – More than a month after the Los Angeles City Council approved Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co.’s (BNSF) $500 million rail yard project near the Port of Los Angeles, the City of Long Beach officially filed suit against its neighboring city. Citing environmental concerns, the suit was filed on Wednesday, June 5.
Other agencies are filing suits, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the South Coast Air Quality Management District, several trucking companies and groups in Wilmington. The Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) is also suing.
LBUSD states the closest school is only 210 feet away from the SCIG site. According to LBUSD, “the project will significantly increase diesel and other emissions very close to these nearby schools.” In a release, LBUSD Superintendent Christopher J. Steinhauser comments, “We cannot support a project that would pose any health risk to our students and staff.”
The proposed rail yard, called the Southern California International Gateway Project, borders West Long Beach. The complaint filed by the city attorney’s office states that negative impacts from SCIG “will be borne almost entirely by the residents of West Long Beach, a low-income, minority neighborhood,” located adjacent to the site. The city’s complaint says the area “already suffers from extensive air pollution.”
SCIG’s impact on public health, especially that of students in nearby schools, “is expected to be devastating,” according to the complaint. It also states that the environmental impact report (EIR) approved by the council and L.A. Harbor Commission “downplayed the issue, ignoring the comments of the City of Long Beach and numerous regulatory authorities, environmental organizations and members of the public.”
Michael Mais, Long Beach’s assistant city attorney, explains that Long Beach “contends that the City of Los Angeles and the harbor department did not follow state law as it relates to CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act]. In a nutshell, what the city is contending is that the proper studies weren’t done during the EIR period.”
Mais predicts suits relating to CEQA will be consolidated. “Then all of the parties will likely sit down with the City of Los Angeles and BNSF” to discuss the possibility of settlement, he says. This meeting would not be a formal mediation.
Assuming a settlement is not reached, he says records will then need to be gathered, and parties will be briefed. After this point, he says, “a trial court will make a decision as to whether or not the port and ultimately the L.A. City Council properly followed CEQA.” He believes it is premature to estimate a court date at this time.
Mais emphasizes the city is not opposed to the project, but feels “better mitigation measures” to preserve quality of life for residents are necessary. Such mitigation might include a buffer park, double-paned windows and air purification systems. According to Mais, every lawsuit filed against Los Angeles regarding SCIG has a CEQA component.
John S. Peterson, founder of Peterson Law Group, P.C., in Irvine, represents six trucking companies filing suit under CEQA. Fast Lane Transportation is included in one suit, while another includes California Cartage Co., Three Rivers Trucking, Los Angeles Harbor Grain Terminal and San Pedro Forklift.
The trucking companies are located on the SCIG site, and will have to be evicted when the project moves forward. Fast Lane Transportation’s case involves issues of eminent domain because it owns the property it utilizes. “Somebody will need to acquire the property,” Peterson says, whether it is Los Angeles or BNSF. “And one of the defenses to a right to take on eminent domain is a non-compliance with CEQA,” he states.
Peterson also cites detrimental economic impacts to the area. “If these companies cannot relocate within the area, then the jobs that they provide, which total collectively about 1,000 or maybe more, would be lost. That’s one of the contentions in the lawsuit: that the EIR did not take into account the net impact on jobs,” he remarks.
Mayor Bob Foster referred to these possible job losses, as well as concerns regarding environmental impacts, at the May 8 Los Angeles City Council meeting. Despite his remarks and those from NRDC attorney David Pettit, Long Beach Councilmember James Johnson and others, the city council voted to approve a 50-year contract with BNSF to build and operate SCIG.