BNSF RAILYARD HEARING: IS TALK OF CLEAN AIR A LOT OF HOT AIR?By Sean Belk
For seven years now, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF)—the railroad Goliath mostly owned by Warren Buffett’s multinational shareholding conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway—has been pushing to build a $500-million rail yard on a 153-acre property in East Wilmington that’s mostly owned by the Port of Los Angeles.
BNSF says the facility—called the Southern California International Gateway (SCIG)—will enhance cargo-handling efficiency, reduce pollution and loosen highway congestion near the Port of Los Angeles. Regional labor unions and goods-movement industry groups are already on board, since the project would also create thousands of construction jobs and boost trade capacity.
But throughout those seven years, a consortium of locals—Port-area residents, Port-related businesses, city and school officials and a variety of activists—has been pushing back.
The locals say that building BNSF’s mega-rail yard on that East Wilmington property wouldn’t be good for either employment or the environment. They point out that the BNSF facility would force out five longtime, Port-related businesses and would substantially shrink the size of two other such businesses—eliminating hundreds of existing jobs. Further, they contend the BNSF rail yard would likely cause more pollution in an industrial neighborhood that is already called the Diesel Death Zone.
Both sides will bring those positions, proposals, claims, evidence and arguments—seven years’ worth of them—to a public hearing this evening (Oct. 18) at Banning’s Landing Community Center (100 E. Water Street, Wilmington) from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The hearing is part of a community outreach effort in conjunction with the required public-comment period that follows the release of the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the BNSF rail yard proposal. The public-comment period on the DEIR closes Nov. 9.
But the DEIR is a point of contention, too … well, the first one was, anyway. Released last year, it brought heavy criticism to the Port of Los Angeles for conducting its analysis with what a wide array of respondents (including officials from the City of Long Beach and Long Beach Unified School District, the City of Carson, environmental groups and nearby residents) described as “flawed” and “outdated” data. That is, the Port used statistics from 2005.
In the DEIR now circulating, the Port of Los Angeles has updated its data to reflect 2010 statistics. Plans call for building the Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) on 153 acres bounded by Sepulveda Boulevard, Pacific Coast Highway, the Dominguez Channel and State Routes 47 and 103 (Terminal Island Freeway). This is mostly Port property in unincorporated East Wilmington, although portions jut into Carson and the site is located near West Long Beach.
The idea behind the SCIG is to unload cargo closer to Port docks and move it more efficiently—that is, to load containers onto rail just four miles from the docks, rather than traveling 24 miles on local roads and the 710 Freeway to the downtown Los Angeles rail facilities known as the Hobart Yard.
BNSF plans to pump $500 million into the project, $100 million of which would go to environmentally friendly technological initiatives, including “wide-span all-electric cranes, ultra-low emission switching locomotives and low-emission railyard equipment.” The Port is planning to rent out its property to BNSF in a new 50-year lease (ending in 2066).
But even with its updates, the DEIR document still includes plans to evict five existing businesses from the property and relocate two others to smaller “alternate sites.” As many as 1,200 local jobs are provided by these businesses, according to their owners.
CALIFORNIA CARTAGE: FROM HONOREE TO REFUGEE?
One of the casualties of the big plans by BNSF and the Port of Los Angeles would be California Cartage Company, which has operated on this piece of Port property since the late 1950s. How long is that? Before California Cartage Company moved onto this land, it was a World War II storage bunker.
Its long local history notwithstanding, company president Bob Curry has seen to it that California Cartage has remained on the cutting edge of changing times. Currently, the company is riding a reputation—and several awards—for environmental consciousness, having helped lead the way into the landmark Clean Trucks Program by upgrading its fleet of trucks to run on alternative fuels. That transition so impressed the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce that in 2010 it honored Curry as the region’s “Entrepreneur of the Year.”
These days, however, the Long Beach Area Chamber supports the BNSF super-railyard proposal, and its EIR states that California Cartage would have to move its transloading operation from the Port-owned 86-acre site where it’s done business for more than a half-century to a 10-acre site south of Pacific Coast Highway. Although the company would still be able to maintain a 19-acre parcel currently leased from Southern California Edison, the EIR concludes that the BNSF project would ultimately reduce California Cartage’s operations by 72 percent.
The EIR factors the reduction of California Cartage’s business into its calculation of BNSF’s environmental improvement—not that it mentions the company by name, instead calling the existing businesses simply “an existing industrial site.” BNSF states that the Port’s updated EIR “confirms that proceeding with the project results in significant air quality and health risk improvements for residents, students, teachers and workers in the area, as compared to continuing the existing uses at the site.”
Curry scoffs at that claim, the California Cartage president contending that his warehousing operation is as good for the air as the proposed rail yard.
“BNSF and the Port of Los Angeles are just doing their best to make a case to get rid of us,” Curry told GreaterLongBeach.com. “You need clean trucks to pull anything into the harbor. The air is as clean there today as it would be if the BNSF put a brand-new facility on it. When you talk about clean air, we are as clean as you can get.”
Curry counters that his trucks are already required to follow guidelines of the Port’s Clean Trucks Program, using alternative-fuel (such as liquefied natural gas) trucks, and that he has also added upgraded forklifts and cargo-handling equipment.
Curry said it would be “impossible” to move his transloading operation—and California Cartage’s workforce, which can range from 600 to 1,000 people—to the site proposed by the Port. He said the company is currently working with lawyers to address “inaccuracies” in the new EIR.
Meanwhile, Curry is shopping for other possible sites for California Cartage within the harbor—but adds that he isn’t ruling out the possibility of relocating outside of California.
“That’s a possibility … all of those things are possibilities,” Curry said. “We’re not happy about it [and] we don’t think BNSF has helped us … We have to try to survive. We’re continually looking for a piece or pieces of property that have available yard space to accomplish the same thing we do now, but that’s not easy to do.”
Fast Lane Transportation, another trucking company, would have to move a portion of its operations to a vacant 4.5-acre site immediately southwest of its current location. Operations on the remaining 24.5 acres would be able to stay the same, including subtenant operations by a company called California Carbon, according to the EIR.
DISPLACED WITH NO ALTERNATIVE
Meanwhile, five local businesses would have to be “displaced from the project site” entirely with “no alternate location identified as part of the project,” according to the EIR. Those businesses include: Total Intermodal Services, Three Rivers Trucking, Flexi-Van, San Pedro Forklift and LA Harbor Grain Terminal/ Harbor Transload.
“All those businesses will still be gone,” said John Cross, president of the West Long Beach Neighborhood Association, a staunch opponent of the project. Although BNSF’s new rail yard would provide for some 450 permanent jobs once the project is completed in 2016, Cross proclaims that the project would still result in a “net loss” of about 800 local jobs. “Those people will lose their jobs if the railroad goes in,” he said.
Cross said, based on figures from the new EIR, the SCIG project would generate about 1.5 million truck trips per year, which is substantially higher than the amount of truck trips that are already generated from the existing businesses. He adds that the new railyard would also add 12 new train tracks for locomotives.
“BNSF and Port of Los Angeles are still putting up a smoke screen,” Cross said. “It’s not going to be any cleaner.”
Contacted by GreaterLongBeach.com, BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent said the Port’s new EIR provides “nothing new” on the relocation or displacement of businesses, adding that real estate discussions are “ongoing.” She said questions about the businesses being relocated are “better suited” for the Port, which owns the property, but she added that California Cartage’s lease on the property has been “up for several years.”
According to BNSF, by 2026, 90 percent of the truck fleet at the railyard will be LNG or equivalent emissions vehicles. Trucks will be required to avoid residential areas by traveling on designated, industrial routes with GPS tracking to ensure compliance. BNSF is also committed to create a “local jobs training program and offer priority hiring for new jobs to qualified local job applicants.”
While Port of Los Angeles staff has changed several chapters of the EIR with new figures, Phillip Sanfield, spokesperson for the Port, said he wasn’t sure if there was anything new to report on the relocation of businesses. “I don’t know that there were changes in that aspect of it,” Sanfield said.