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Expansion of Port Faces Vote

Times Staff Writer

Confronted with opposition from air quality officials, the Long Beach port staff has recommended reversing a key decision that allowed a controversial expansion project to move forward.

The port’s commissioners are scheduled to vote in a special session today on whether to take the unusual step of withdrawing the final environmental review of plans to expand Pier J.

The hastily called meeting comes two weeks after dozens of area residents confronted the Long Beach City Council, claiming the nation’s second-largest port seriously erred in approving a project that they said would worsen air pollution and increase health problems.

And it follows a strongly worded Sept. 22 letter to the port from the South Coast Air Quality Management District calling into question for a third time the port’s calculation on the amount of air pollution that the project would create.

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The port staff is asking the five commissioners to rescind their Aug. 2 approval of the final environmental documents.

News of the recommendation drew praise from residents, clean-air groups and regional air quality officials who said they are encouraged that the port may be starting to acknowledge public concerns about air pollution from ships, trucks, trains and port equipment.

The port plans to conduct a new review of the project’s potential environmental effects, said Geraldine Knatz, the port’s managing director of development. She estimates that the action could delay the project at least six to eight months.

“Our feeling is that we want to have the best document that we can have,” Knatz said Tuesday.

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Long Beach City Atty. Robert E. Shannon said that his office conferred with port officials before today’s special meeting was scheduled but he could not divulge what he advised his clients.

“If they do rescind the certification, I will assume that they will make the environmental document better,” he said.

One of the project’s critics, Gail Ruderman Feuer, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Tuesday that she hopes commissioners direct the staff to look at all issues raised by the project’s opponents. “I am seriously concerned port staff thinks they only need to tinker with the document when it needs a complete overhaul,” she said.

The port staff’s recommendation comes amid mounting concern about air contamination from ships, trucks and trains serving the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, the largest air polluter in Southern California. Two recent studies from USC experts found evidence of elevated health problems downwind of the ports: one reporting on unexplained pockets of cancer, and the other on the loss of lung function in children in cities with dirty air, including Long Beach.

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Some clean-air activists said the port may be trying to avoid a lawsuit such as the one that residents and environmental groups brought against Los Angeles and its port in 2001 over alleged inadequacies in the review of a new China Shipping pier. That suit ended with a settlement that forced the city and port to pay $60 million, primarily for projects to clean up the air.

Two experts on the California Environmental Quality Act said they are not familiar with any situation in which a public agency has chosen to rescind its approval or “certification” of an environmental impact report, particularly since no lawsuit has been filed.

“That would be quite extraordinary, especially a sophisticated agency well-represented like the port,” said Antonio Rossmann, a San Francisco-based attorney who is one of the state’s most respected environmental attorneys. “On major issues, I’d be surprised if there were more than a handful of cases around the state or the country where an agency has withdrawn its certification.”

Typically, an agency weighs the legal risks of such a document before certifying it, said David Nawi, an environmental attorney who formerly served as the West Coast regional solicitor for the U.S. Department of the Interior and as general counsel for the California Air Resources Board.

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But if an agency has learned new information about a project, withdrawing certification would make sense, he said.

“A certifying agency ignores at its great peril comments from an air district on air issues,” he said.

The 115-acre expansion is the first major project in the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex to undergo review since the 2003 China Shipping settlement, heightening interest in its potential impacts.

In fact, the lead plaintiffs in the China Shipping case -- the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Coalition for Clean Air -- both scrutinized the Pier J draft documents and submitted criticisms.

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So did the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which wrote two letters to the port, in October 2003 and again this July, stating that the port was underestimating how much air pollution the project would create.

Despite those concerns, harbor commissioners voted unanimously to approve the documents.

Residents appealed that decision to the City Council, which planned to decide Nov. 23 whether to ask the port to redo its review.

During a grueling five-hour Sept. 14 meeting, council members heard a litany of criticisms from residents, clean-air groups and an air district representative who again questioned the Pier J pollution calculations.

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Port officials had rebutted those criticisms in a Sept. 9 letter addressed to the air district that they distributed to council members before the meeting. In that letter, port officials said their calculation methods were approved by the air district staff.

AQMD officials say they never received the Sept. 9 letter.

After they learned about the document from a Times reporter, air district Executive Officer Barry R. Wallerstein wrote a letter to port Planning Director Robert Kanter, stating that the district “strongly disagreed with numerous statements” in the port’s letter.

Wallerstein labeled as “simply untrue” the port’s contention that AQMD staff had supported the port’s calculations of emissions.

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“The ports are the only large source in the basin where emissions are significantly increasing,” he wrote.

“The need for implementing mitigation measures to reduce or eliminate air quality impacts and exposure to diesel particulate is imperative.”

Knatz said the new environmental review will look at all issues raised by the air district and clean-air groups.


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