After the California Court of Appeal overturned the majority of a trial court’s earlier findings that the environmental impact report (EIR) for a new rail facility proposed by BNSF Railway was largely insufficient, appellants – including the City of Long Beach – are considering whether to take the matter to the California Supreme Court.
The Court of Appeal ruled on January 12 that the EIR for BNSF’s Southern California International Gateway Project, a $500 million proposed intermodal railyard adjacent to Westside Long Beach and harbor communities, was sufficient, with one exception. The EIR “fails to adequately consider air quality impacts of the project, particularly impacts to ambient air pollutant concentrations and cumulative impacts of such pollutant concentrations,” the court decision states. A trial court’s earlier ruling that identified other deficiencies in the EIR, including insufficient analysis of traffic noise impacts, was tossed out.
The project was originally protested in court by appellants including the City of Long Beach, the Long Beach Unified School District, community groups and businesses that would be displaced by the project. They argued that much of the EIR was insufficient and would negatively impact surrounding communities. The project was defended both by BNSF and the City of Los Angeles, who presented the project as a jobs creator and supply chain efficiency strategy.
Mike Mais, assistant city attorney for Long Beach who has been working on the case, said that the ruling does not mean the project has a green light to move forward. The EIR must be revised to address the Court of Appeal’s finding, he explained. “It would be necessary to do additional studies and mitigation measures on air quality, which was one of the big issues that we all had primarily because of the [nearby] schools and the residents,” he said.
Mais has spoken with other parties opposed to the project, but no decisions have been made about whether or not to bring the matter before the California Supreme Court. According to City Attorney Charles Parkin, the matter will be addressed in a closed session meeting of the Long Beach City Council on February 6, at which time the council may direct the city attorney’s staff to pursue the case further.
BNSF provided the following statement from Roger Nober, chief legal officer and executive vice president of law and corporate affairs: “We are pleased that the court has reversed the lower court ruling, correctly applied the law and maintained the existing scope of CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act]. We are currently reviewing the ruling and will coordinate with the Port of Los Angeles regarding next steps.”