Fighting for Clean Air: Community Members Speak Out Against Proposed Railyard Expansion near the LA and Long Beach Ports

A few miles from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach lies the 233-acre Intermodal Container Transfer Facility (ICTF).  Much of the cargo that is unloaded from ships at the ports is hauled by diesel trucks to the ICTF, where it is transferred to diesel trains that then carry it all over the U.S.  This railyard is on port property, but it is operated by Union Pacific Railroad.  The ICTF was built in 1986, and Union Pacific now wants to expand it to more than double its capacity.  The ICTF is overseen by the ICTF Joint Powers Authority ("Joint" as in a joint creation of both the LA and Long Beach ports), and this Joint Powers Authority has the power to approve or disapprove Union Pacific's expansion request.  The LA and Long Beach City Councils both also have a powerful role here too: each Council can reject the Environmental Impact Reports for the projects, requiring further environmental review.

Directly across the street from the ICTF is the site where a different railroad company, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, is proposing to build an entirely new, additional railyard.  Burlington Northern is calling this proposed second railyard the Southern California International Gateway (SCIG). 

There is no doubt that the increased truck traffic and other sources of diesel emissions from these railyard projects will increase the health risks in the surrounding neighborhoods, which are already overburdened by a continuous onslaught of air pollution from existing railyards, the ports, several freeways, and nearby oil refineries.  If the ICTF expansion and the SCIG project are built, the local community will see 3 million new truck trips per year.  The California Air Resources Board estimates that approximately 186,000 people live within a 3 mile radius of the ICTF, and there are several schools and neighborhoods directly across the street and within a few blocks of the ICTF and the proposed SCIG site.  My colleague Melissa Lin Perrella discussed some of the concerns with these projects in her blog.  The cancer risks from existing facilities are already unacceptably high, and the asthma rates are higher in this region than in other parts of LA and the state. 

The residents of Long Beach and other communities that live near railyards throughout LA know about these health concerns all too well.  The Draft Environmental Impact Reports for these projects are expected to be released in April, 2010, but the community residents don't need to wait for a formal analysis.  They already know that the diesel emissions and other toxic air pollutants from railyards bring cancer and other health problems into their communities.  And they want to make sure that those who have power over the ICTF and SCIG projects understand too.  Many brave members of these communities, along with public health and environmental organizations, have been voicing their concerns loud and clear. 

Just in the past few weeks alone, community members worried about the ICTF and SCIG projects went to City Hall and testified before the Joint Powers Authority, to share their stories and express their opposition to these projects.  On October 9, residents from the neighborhoods surrounding the ICTF and SCIG site met with the staff of several LA City Council members, joined by friends from across LA that also live by polluting railyards and representatives from the American Lung Association of California, Communities for a Better Environment, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, End Oil, the Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization, Pacoima Beautiful, a professor and students from Occidental College, and NRDC.  There were so many of us that day at City Hall that we had to break up into groups, squeezing into conference rooms with standing room only.  Residents living by railyards throughout LA, including the ICTF, explained how air pollution from their nearby railyard has made their family and neighbors sick with cancer and asthma.  They talked about the vibrations and noise from the yards that permeate their home and damage their property.  And they asked that the City Council members come visit the ICTF and take a tour of the surrounding neighborhood, to see for themselves and hear more from nearby residents. 

And last week, at the October 21 Board Meeting of the Joint Powers Authority, members of the community again expressed their fears of how the proposed ICTF project will harm their families.  One woman testified that a majority of the people she knows and their children have problems with asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and another woman talked about the difficulties of living with asthma.  A man named Ben Rockwell, who suffers from severe lung problems, asked that the Joint Powers Authority consider those people that "can't afford to move or change jobs" and are "forced to live in one of the most polluted areas in our state."  The message from the community is clear, as one woman testified in no uncertain terms: "this is my community and we do not want any of these projects in our communities." 

I know the concerned residents living near railyards and the proposed ICTF and SCIG projects will do their best to educate the LA and Long Beach City Councils and the Joint Powers Authority about the increased harm their communities will suffer if the railyard projects move forward, but whether the City Council members and the Joint Powers Authority listen to these wise warnings remains to be seen.  NRDC will continue to stand alongside these communities, supporting their voices as they fight for clean air in their neighborhoods.  We are also watching the environmental review and development process closely, making sure that at the very least, these projects follow both the letter and spirit of the law.  I am inspired by the courage of the community residents and their allies speaking out against these projects, and I am enraged at the possibility that their concerns will be ignored.  I hope the LA and Long Beach City Councils and the Joint Powers Authority listen with both their hearts and humanity intact, and that they will take seriously their responsibility to respect their neighbors.