By Gail Ruderman Feuer
Despite the availability of technology to cut pollution, major seaports every year emit ever-larger amounts of toxic diesel exhaust and other contaminants that damage public health, disrupt local comunities, and harm marine habitats. For example, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the single largest source of air pollution in Southern California, emitting as much diesel exhaust as 16,000 tractor-trailers idling their engines twenty-four hours a day. As a result, residents of San Pedro and Wilmington are plagued by acute and chronic respiratory illnesses, such as asthma and bronchitis, and suffer some of the highest cancer risk in the region.
In June 2001, after decades of expansion by the Ports of Los Angles and Long Beach without mitigation of the environmental impacts, local community members joined forces with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Coalition for Clean Air to challenge the Port of L.A.’s approval of a 174-acre terminal expansion for the China Shipping Container Line. According to port documents, as many as 250 of the world’s largest container vessels planned to call at the terminal, with cargo being moved by as many as 1 million trucks on local streets every year.
Despite the clear impact on the local communities, the port and city chose to rely on prior environmental documents prepared for other related projects, and refused to prepare an Environmental Impact Report that would focus specifically on the impacts of this terminal expansion. None of the other environmental reviews revealed to the public the true impact the China Shipping project would have on its neighbors and the region nor did they provide any real mitigation for those impacts.
The groups filed suit under CEQA, challenging the failure to prepare an EIR. After an eighteen-month-long legal battle, in October 2002 the Court of Appeal permanently enjoined further construction and operation of the terminal until the port and city prepared a full environmental review in full compliance with CEQA.
The three-judge panel unanimously rejected arguments by the port and city that the project had been reviewed years ago in prior environmental documents, and held that these documents failed to address “any site-specific environmental issues related to the China Shipping project.”
After the court decision halted all construction and operation of the project, the parties returned to the negotiating table to see if a settlement could be reached. Five months later, the parties reached an historic settlement that allowed the first almost completed wharf to open pending completion of the EIR, but in exchange provided dramatic mitigation of both the China Shipping project and impacts from prior projects that had never been mitigated.
Among other things, the settlement requires the Port to spend $50 million over the following four years on the reduction of air pollution and industrial blight in the bordering communities of San Pedro and WIlmington, and in addition to implement specific significant mitigation measures at the China Shipping terminal that will make it a “green” terminal. The other “green” measures include a requirement that 70 percent of the ships using the berths pluyg into electric power while at berth instead of running their diesel engines, 100 percent of the yard tractors run on cleaner alternative fuels like natural gas or propane, 100 percent of other yard equipment to install pollution controls and use cleaner diesel fuels, and installation on the second wharf of “low profile” cranes that are half the height of traditional cranes and thus will have less of an aesthetic impact on the local community.
In June 2004, China Shipping’s first vessel docked at the new terminal, and plugged into dockside power – the first container ship in the world to do so. Every time a ship plugs in to electric power at the terminal, this technology will mean three fewer tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides and 350 fewer pounds of diesel particuate matter will be spewed into the air. Community and environmental leaders are hopeful that the China Shipping sga will lead to more complete environmental reviews of new port projects and “greener” terminals at the ports in the future.
Gail Ruderman Feuer is a senior attorney in the NRDC’s Los Angeles office. Prior to this, Ms. Ruderman Feuer served as a deputy in the environment section of the California
Attorney General’s office. Ms. Ruderman Feuer has successfully litigated a broad range of environmental cases, and specializes in air quality, energy, transportation, toxics and
California’s Proposition 65.