Widened Panama Canal Threatens the Environment

North Atlantic Right Whale (NOAA)

The Obama administration’s push to modernize U.S. ports to accommodate huge new ships that can pass through the widened Panama Canal worries environmentalists who believe U.S. coastlines will be subjected to enormous damage and coastal residents will face increased health risks. For marine life already threatened by shipping traffic, like the majestic right whale, the odds are even tougher.

The North Atlantic right whale gets its name, legend has it, from the fishing industry’s belief that it was the “right” whale to hunt because of its docile nature, tendency to stay close to the coast and habit of swimming near the ocean surface to skim for food. One of the largest animals in the world at 59 feet and 70 tons, it’s also one of the most critically endangered.

The right whales were already hunted to near extinction when they received international protection in the mid-twentieth century, and only about 400 of the North Atlantic species remain. Each winter the whales migrate south to critical habitat along the coastline from Savannah, Ga., to Jacksonville, Fla., to give birth go through the delicate process of separating children from their mothers, known as calving.

Today, the biggest threats to the dark gray whales are ships that can strike them and fishing gear in which they can become entangled.

Panama Canal expansion project.(www.arcticgas.gov)
Panama Canal expansion project.(www.arcticgas.gov)

In the frenzy among cities to deepen harbors, expand railways and improve roads for truck traffic in order to be one of the ports to attract mega ships once the Panama Canal is enlarged in 2015, the North Atlantic right whale may be just one of the casualties.

Quinton White Jr.

The mega ships “don’t stop as fast,” Professor Quinton White Jr., executive director of the Marine Science Research Institute at Jacksonville University says. “They don’t turn as fast,” he says.

The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency charged with overseeing dredging of the Jacksonville port, said in an e-mail to Natural Resources News Service that the right whale would actually fare better with mega ships because there would be fewer vessels needed to carry goods.

The debate in Jacksonville is typical of the controversy over dredging and other steps proposed or underway to ready ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts for huge ships, called “Post-Panamax” or “New-Panamax” because they’re too big to fit through the Panama Canal as it is now. On the West Coast, the Port of Los Angeles can already accommodate the ships but officials don’t want to lose business. The port is planning a huge new rail yard to service increased truck and train traffic.

Cities are vying to be one of the ports of call for the mega ships because of predictions the new shipping business will create tens of thousands of jobs and pour billions of dollars into the economy.

Harbor Plans Alarm Activists

Some cities – Houston and New Orleans, for example – are proceeding with little or no controversy. But in other cities the rush to finish first has raised serious concerns about losses of hundreds of acres of delicate ecosystems, including habitat for endangered species, and contamination of freshwater for local drinking supplies. There is also concern over increases in air pollution and exposure to dangerous toxins.

The ships are up to 1,200 feet long, 161 feet wide and 50 feet deep. They are up to 190 feet tall. The vessels can carry up to 12,000 TEUs, which stands for 20-foot equivalent units. TEU is a measurement of cargo capacity: each unit is equal to the size of a 20 foot by 8 foot container. The new ships can carry two to three times the amount of cargo as the older Panamax ships.

Professor White says dredging 13 miles of the St. Johns River from 40 feet to 47 feet to deepen the port of Jacksonville would increase the salinity, or saltiness, of the water, ruining hundreds of acres of seagrasses, wetlands, coral reef and other delicate ecosystems. Scores of species from shrimp to dolphins would have to find new habitat to survive, he says, and cypress trees, some hundreds of year old, would die. The deepening of the river includes blasting above the aquifer, which would endanger the local water supply and deal another blow to wildlife, White says.

Environmentalists say they are also worried there will be an increase in air pollution because of the larger ships and the additional trucks they will attract. Supporters of dredging say environmental impacts will be slight. The new ships burn cleaner fuel, they say.

Nancy Rubin, a spokeswoman for the Jacksonville port authority, a quasi-public agency known as Jaxport, says it will insist that all of its customers follow federal, state and local environmental regulations.

“Balancing environmental concerns with economic concerns is of vital importance to all of us here at the port,” Rubin says.

Army Corps Offers Conflicting Reports

The Army Corps says in a July 2013 Environmental Impact Report that the effects will be minimal. The proposed project “will contain significant mitigation to compensate for impacts to ecological resources,” the report says.

But the Army Corps says in a June 2012 report that the impact of past dredging on ecosystems and wild species has been “particularly intense” and the impacts on air, water and habitats “have been far reaching.” The report goes on to say that past environmental impacts “indicate the type of future modernization impacts that are likely to occur from expansion of harbor ports…”

President Barack Obama tours the JAXPORT July 25, 2013 (whitehouse.gov)

On July 19, 2012 President Obama announced that as part of his “We Can’t Wait” initiative his administration would order that reviews of proposals to dredge five harbors along the Atlantic Coast be expedited. The initiative, designed to get around delays in Congress by using an executive order, attempts to speed up dredging for the ports of New York and New Jersey; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Jacksonville and Miami.

Most of the projects, including Jacksonville, will be paid for by state and federal governments. Some of the projects are on hold until Congress approves funding; others are moving ahead, using the state portion of the funding.  (Los Angeles will be paid for with private dollars.) The Water Resources Reform and Development Act, legislation that would authorize the spending of public funds, has passed the House, and the Senate has passed a similar bill. They have to work out their differences, pass the bill in both houses and then pass another measure actually appropriating the money for the dredging projects.

“Today’s commitment to move these port projects forward faster,” Obama said in announcing the plan to fast-track dredging projects, “will help drive job growth and strengthen the economy.”

Lisa Rinaman

Environmentalists, usually aligned with Obama, are disappointed in the president’s actions. Lisa Rinaman, an executive of St. Johns Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group in Jacksonville, says Obama is being shortsighted in his push to rush dredging.

“I think it severely shortchanges the review,” Rinaman says. “You shave 14 months off of a very intensive process…and the Corps is forced to make critical decisions without all the information they need.”

Even federal agencies – part of the president’s own administration – say the environmental impact of dredging the Jacksonville port will be far greater than the Army Corps is predicting. The Environmental Protection Agency said in Aug. 13 comments to the Corps that the EPA is concerned about “significant impact” to public water supplies, water quality, and aquatic ecosystems.

EPA, NMFS Say Corps Greatly Underestimates Risks

The National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, writes in an Aug. 12 letter to the Corps that it is considering appealing the Corps’ dredging plans for Jacksonville to the assistant secretary of the Army or the president’s Council on Environmental Quality. The NMFS says the estimate of lost habitat “is flawed due to input of assumptions that are not supported by the best available science” and “the recovery is overly optimistic.” Restoring acres of coral reef would take 167 years, for example, rather than the 50 predicted in the Corps’ draft environmental impact statement, the NMFS says.

According to the Corps’ impact statement, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a state agency, opposed dredging the harbor because the panel “felt that threatened and endangered species could not be adequately protected during blasting operations.” The Corps says blasting will be modeled after the Miami port, which it says successfully protected threatened and endangered species.

The Corps said in an e-mail to Natural Resources News Service that dredging the Jacksonville harbor from 40 to 47 feet would have only “minor effects” on 294.57 acres of wetlands and 180.5 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation. Wetlands provide habitat to a wide variety of species, filter out impurities in the water and reduce flooding by soaking up water.  Submerged aquatic vegetation grows under water and provides food and habitat to an array of saltwater species.  The Corps says it will mitigate the impact of dredging by purchasing 585.43 acres of freshwater wetlands and 43.77 acres of salt marsh wetlands from a conservation land trust.

Savings in national transportation costs would be greater than the cost of dredging the harbor, the Corps says, so the project is “economically justified.”  The agency estimates that deepening the Jacksonville harbor will cost $640 million, with the federal government paying $409 million. The state would pay the rest, according to a formula in the federal authorizing bill. The Corps says, assuming Congress funds the project, it anticipates that work will begin next year and finish in four to six years after that.

Deepening the harbor would create 34,508 jobs by 2035 and inject $5.5 billion into the economy according to a study by Martin Associates, an economic consulting firm based in Lancaster, Pa. That number includes a range of employees, from the dock worker who unloads the ships to the trucker who transports the goods to the worker who has a job because of the money spent by harbor employees.  Jaxport commissioned the study.

“We feel that the economic vibrancy of northeast Florida will be supported for generations with this,” Jaxport’s Rubin says. “In order to remain competitive on the world stage, U.S. East Coast ports will have to be ready for where the industry is headed.”

David Jaffee

Opponents of dredging question the economic projections in the Martin Associates study because it was done for Jaxport. David Jaffee, a professor of sociology at the University of North Florida, says while ship engineers would earn $83,000 a year, the majority of workers (61 percent) would earn an average of $25,460 annually. Low-level employees, such as workers who pack goods, would earn only $20,000 annually, which is well below the federal government’s poverty level of $23,550 for a family of four. Many of these jobs would be temporary and seasonal and would pay even less and offer no benefits, Jaffee says.

“This is not the income level we are trying to attract here,” Jaffee says. “I don’t think any community is.”

Activists note that the Dames Point Bridge, which spans the St. Johns River, is only 174 feet high and thus wouldn’t accommodate ships that are 190 feet tall. The Corps says the Jacksonville port will cater to slightly smaller ships that are 139 feet to 156 feet tall and carry about two-thirds the cargo of the biggest ships. Environmentalists are skeptical and predict that taxpayers will be asked to fund a project to raise the bridge.

“They said in a meeting that our goal is to be a primary port,” Janet Stanko, Chair of the Northeast Florida chapter of the Sierra Club, says. “I think there could be some double-talk here.”

Biden Boosts Dredging in Georgia with Bipartisan Support

Vice President Joe Biden visits Port of Savannah

In September, Vice President Joe Biden went to Savannah to tout the economic benefits of dredging its port. Nearly all of Georgia’s politicians, Democrats and Republicans, appeared with Biden, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (Republican Gov. Nathan Deal said he had a scheduling conflict.)

“We are going to get this thing done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water,” Biden said.

The Army Corps has recommended that 38 miles of the Savannah Harbor be dredged from 42 feet to 47 feet. The Savannah River runs along the border between Georgia and South Carolina. The project would cost $662 million, according to the authorization bill passed by the House. The federal government would pay $463.4 million and Georgia would pay $198.6 million, according to the formula in the measure.

The Corps says reduced transportation costs will pump $134 million dollars a year into the national economy.

“They’ll be using larger, more efficient ships that can get in and out of the port more quickly,” Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the Army Corps, says.

In October 2012, the Corps issued a so-called “Record of Decision,” usually the last step in its review process. As part of the decision to move ahead with the project, the Corps said it would buy 2,245 acres of freshwater wetlands and restore 28.75 acres of tidal brackish marsh, which provides a transition from saltwater to freshwater ecosystems. Environmentalists said the proposed mitigation could not replace hundreds of acres of the Savannah Nation Wildlife Refuge and rare freshwater tidal wetlands that would be jeopardized by dredging. Freshwater tidal wetlands are unique because they move to the ebb and flow of the ocean even though they are not salty. The national wildlife refuge and the freshwater tidal wetlands provide habitat to many rare species.

Before the Corps issued its record of decision, several environmental groups sued, saying the Corps failed to apply for required pollution control permits from the state of South Carolina. The Southern Environmental Law Center brought suit in February 2012 on behalf of Savannah Riverkeeper, based in Augusta, Ga., the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation. The Savannah River Maritime Commission, a South Carolina state agency, later joined the suit.

The suit, settled in May, says deepening the harbor would dredge up cadmium, a toxic heavy metal that can cause fragile bones, high blood pressure, severe kidney damage and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The cadmium would be dumped on the banks of the Savannah River and could leach into the water, tainting fish meant for human consumption, environmentalists said.  The suit also alleged that habitat for scores of wildlife species would be degraded because dredging would suck oxygen out of the water.

Corps Concessions Help But Not Enough, Activists Say

Tonya Bonitatibus

Under the settlement, the Corps will provide a filtration system to ensure cadmium does not leach into the river. Before dredging can begin, the Corps will have to demonstrate that an oxygen injection system – known as Speece Cones – will work to put oxygen back into the water. The Georgia Ports Authority, the quasi-public agency that owns the Port of Savannah, will set aside $2 million as a contingency fund in case the water injection system falters. The ports authority will spend another $33.5 million to monitor water quality and habitats and preserve wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Tonya Bonitatibus, executive director of Savannah Riverkeeper, says environmentalists accepted a compromise that doesn’t allay all their concerns. Bonitatibus says, for example, that dredging will jeopardize the local aquifer, which is below the surface of the harbor and a source of groundwater for wells. Dredging will move saltwater farther into freshwater, endangering drinking supplies for Savannah, nearby Hilton Head, S.C., and Beaufort, S.C., she says.

“We put a Band-Aid on it with this harbor dredging settlement,” Bonitatibus says, “but it’s going to continue to be a concern.”

Native Son Works to Save Paradise

Capt. Dan Kipnis

Dan Kipnis grew up on the manmade isle of tiny, upscale Palm Island in the Biscayne Bay, off the coast of Miami. He lived in a house his grandfather built in 1928. As a teenager in the 1960s he puttered around in his boat and fished the bountiful bay. When he was still too young to drive, he rode a boat to high school and the movies, both in Miami. (A highway connected Palm Island to the mainland.)

Kipnis, 63, now retired, continued his love of the bay as the captain of a charter fishing boat for more than 30 years. He has served on many government and private environmental advisory boards.

Back in the late 1970s, Kipnis says, the bay was heavily polluted, dirtied by decades of dumping, sewer runoff and other contaminants. It was not unusual to see fish washed ashore with lesions and missing fins. In response, federal, state and local officials began the lengthy process of cleaning up the bay and, Kipnis says, it was remarkably successful, especially considering Biscayne Bay is surrounded by 2.5 million people.

“I went fishing in the bay with some friends on Friday and we saw 13 different species in three hours,” Kipnis said in a recent interview. “The bay has come back. The bay is vibrant. The water’s clean and pretty. We’re blessed here. It is a miracle.”

If environmentalists see Biscayne Bay as a micro paradise, they see dredging it from 42 feet to 50 feet as taking a bite of the apple. State and local officials hope to make Miami a premiere port of call for the Post-Panamax ships by deepening the bay. Kipnis says the project endangers hundreds of acres of fish and wildlife habitat and scores of species that use them.

In November 2011, Kipnis, the Tropical Audubon Society and the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper filed suit, challenging permits for dredging that were granted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The suit settled in April 2012 after Miami-Dade County agreed to set aside $1.31 million dollars for additional monitoring and restoration projects. The Corps also agreed that blasting would not take place for an hour and a half after sunrise and before sunset, when marine life is most active. Kipnis says the concession and the additional spending will help but not nearly enough.

Blasting and dredging of the harbor will stir up sediment on the channel floor and send tiny particles swirling into the bay. The haziness of water caused by these particles, too small to see with the naked eye, is known as turbidity and is an indication of water quality. Kipnis compares fish trying to navigate high-turbidity waters to a person caught in an Arizona dust storm without a mask.

The churning sediment will also blanket hundreds of acres of coral reef and seagrass, jeopardizing their survival, Kipnis says.

The Corps says in its environmental impact statement that the dredging project “would cause temporary increases in turbidity levels” but “would not exceed permitted levels.” The impact statement calls for replacing 16.6 acres of seagrass and relocating 9.28 acres of historic coral reef. That includes reef that has been growing for more than a thousand years, Kipnis says. The Corps is not mitigating for the coral reef along the walls and bottom of the channel that has been growing for 50 years or less and is not considered historic, according to Kipnis.

The Army Corp says in its June 2012 report that dredging has “some persistent effects, including some unavoidable [harm] to imperiled species.” Deepening harbors, the report says, can also cause “destructive saltwater intrusion into freshwater ecosystems and domestic water supplies.”

Officials at PortMiami, the Miami-Dade County government agency that operates the port, did not return e-mails and calls requesting an interview. Spokeswoman Andria Muniz-Amador hung up the phone when asked for comments.

Bill Johnson

Port director Bill Johnson says in a news release on April 10, 2013, that dredging the harbor will not adversely affect the environment. Johnson says that divers will be in the water adjacent to the project before, during and after all dredging to monitor turbidity and the dropping of sediment onto delicate ecosystems in the bay. The divers will also be looking for sea turtles, porpoises and manatees, marine mammals sometimes known as sea cows. If any are spotted, blasting can’t begin for one hour.

“Together with our state and federal partners, the Port is committed to upholding the highest environmental standards for this project,” Johnson says.

Dredging will keep Miami competitive in the global market place, PortMiami says on its website, and create 33,000 jobs by 2035 because of increased shipping business.

In May, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded a contract to deepen the harbor to Great Lakes Dock and Dredge, based in Oak Brook, Ill. Dredging began on Nov. 20, according to a press release from the Army Corp of Engineers, and is expected to finish by mid-2015. The price tag on the dredging job is $220 million, part of a $2 billion-dollar package of projects to ready the port for the Post-Panamax ships. A tunnel that will connect trucks directly to Interstate 95 and other highways, allowing them to bypass downtown traffic, is also planned. And officials are planning a rail link from the port of Miami to interstate railways.

The project will be paid for with federal, state and local dollars. Kipnis says there may be an even greater cost that isn’t covered.

“It’s a big experiment.” Kipnis says. “They don’t know [how much damage will be done]. I don’t know. But you can’t do this and not hurt the environment.”

New Yorker Fights for ‘Environmental Justice’

Beryl Thurman

In the North Shore community of Staten Island, New York, Beryl Thurman reads from what she calls an “A to Z” list of chemicals.

“Arsenic, asbestos, barium, benzene, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, copper, cyanide…” she rattles off.

It’s a list, Thurman says, of the hazardous chemicals used by various industries that have operated next to this densely populated North Shore community over the past two centuries. The mix of toxic heavy metals and poisonous chemicals have severe adverse health effects, including decreased blood cells, liver and kidney damage, severe irritation of the lungs and throat, and a variety of cancers.

After leaving her job as a human resources specialist at the Association for the Help of Retarded Children, Thurman, 55, turned her focus full time to protecting her community, the North Shore of Staten Island, from dangerous toxins. She heads the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy. Over the phone, Thurman reviews a map, counting 25 toxic sites abutting her community. They are crammed into an area with a 5.2 mile radius, Thurman says. The map was done by Melissa Checker, an urban studies professor at Queens College in New York.

Among the earliest and biggest polluters along the North Shore waterfront was the John Jewett & Sons White Lead Co., which manufactured white lead, an ingredient in lead paint, from 1830 to 1898. National Lead Industries operated the site for several decades after that. Various industrial companies subsequently used the property between 1949 and 1990. Thurman says lead dust cakes the sidewalks and gutters along the property. It was toxic enough for the EPA to name the property a Superfund site in December 2011. The agency says on its website that although it can’t be linked to the white lead plant, the backyards of homes in the North Shore have high levels of lead.

Lead poisoning can severely affect the mental and physical development of young children, according to the Mayo Clinic, a prestigious not-for profit research hospital in Rochester, Minn. At extremely high levels, exposure to lead can be fatal.

On February 1994, then President Bill Clinton signed an executive order directing that all federal agencies “make achieving environmental justice” a part of their mission by identifying minority and low income communities that bear a disproportionately high burden of pollution. In November 2009, EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson announced that the North Shore was one of 10 communities selected to receive an “environmental justice” grant of $100,000. Jackson cited the abandoned and contaminated properties along the waterfront and the high level of lead in the blood of children in the North Shore community.

Bayonne Bridge

Now Thurman is fighting the federal government over its approval of plans to raise the Bayonne Bridge, which connects Staten Island to Bayonne, New Jersey. The plan, approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, will raise the bridge from 151 feet to 215 feet, high enough to allow Post-Panamax ships to get through to the Port of New York and New Jersey.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a bi-state agency, says in a 2010 federal grant request to study raising the bridge that the project is critical to keeping the port competitive and maintaining and developing the regional economies of New York and New Jersey. The port authority says on its website that raising the bridge will decrease air pollution because larger, more efficient and cleaner ships will call on the port. Environmentalists say raising the bridge will increase pollution because more trucks and trains, burning diesel fuel, will be needed to handle the greater cargo. They also say that raising the bridge will increase the number of ships that come to the harbor and that the fuel that powers them will add to pollution.

Thurman’s North Shore Waterfront Conservancy joined a broad coalition of local and regional environmental and civic groups and the Natural Resources Defense Council in filing suit against the Coast Guard on July 31, 2013. The suit alleges that the Coast Guard failed in its duty to protect the environment when it ruled that its environmental assessment was enough and did not ask for a far more rigorous review, a full environmental impact statement.

The U.S. Coast Guard says in its environmental assessment that the project should proceed. The suit brought by environmentalists and civic groups says more study and a better mitigation plan are needed before the bridge is raised.

The Army Corps concedes in its 2012 report that it has violated the policy that calls for special deference to low-income and minority communities already burdened by high pollution.

“Because harbors concentrate transportation systems…in densely populated areas,” the report says, they remain a significant source of air pollution and inequitable impact on low-income and minority communities (which is inconsistent with Federal policies pertaining to environmental justice).”

Bayonne Bridge, sunset

The Bayonne Bridge is one of the projects Obama ordered “fast-tracked” as part of his “We Can’t Wait” initiative. But it was up to the Coast Guard to decide how rigorous a review was needed.

Environmentalists say toxins in the ground on and around the waterfront may be uncovered and stirred into the air by digging for the bridge. The $1.3 billion project starts at either side of the bridge and continues for a half mile on either side. Construction began in the summer and the Coast Guard says it will be completed sometime in 2015.

The Coast Guard says on its website that “there would be no significant impacts related to hazardous and contaminated materials” and that “any hazardous materials would be properly managed to avoid exposure to the public.”

Engineering Firm Finds Numerous Toxins

But there are some stark warnings in the environmental assessment, done by Hatch Mott McDonald, an engineering consulting firm. The company looked at 19 areas of land on and around the project site.

Richmond Terrace Radiological Site

Between 1939 and 1942, the assessment says, the Union Miniere du Haut Katanga, a Belgian firm, stored high-grade uranium in warehouses on the Richmond Terrace Radiological Site, which is on the waterfront, as part of the Manhattan Project. The radiological contamination was above acceptable levels when tested in 2008, according to the assessment.

“The radiological contamination present at the site may not present an immediate health risk” but “disturbance of the contaminated [material] must be avoided,” the assessment says.

Exposure to uranium increases the risk of liver disease and cancer, according to the EPA. At very high levels, exposure to uranium can lead to internal radiation and chemical poisoning, the agency says.

The assessment list many unknowns about the property. In 1992, the Port Authority found lead in the soil at two Little League baseball fields and replaced the top 6 to 12 inches of soil but “the presence of lead in the soil remains a concern.” PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) were found in the soil of a playground next to the bridge. The substance, once used as a motor coolant, has been banned since 1979. The Port Authority replaced the top 4to 10 inches of the playground soil, the assessment says, but “given that no post-excavation soil samples were taken, the presence of PCBs remaining in the soil is a concern.”

PCBs cause cancer, according to the EPA. They also cause a myriad of adverse effects on the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems, the agency says. The endocrine system includes all of the glands and regulates the function of organs in the body.

A map of the property shows an underground storage tank, possibly abandoned by a filling station, the assessment says, but “the presence of the tank is unknown,” it says. Another unknown, according to the assessment, is whether aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a carcinogen found in oil, coal and tar and produced by burning fuel, is present.

The quality of soil stockpiled around a dumpster is also “unknown,” according to the assessment. Among a long list of other unknowns are whether there is lead contamination at nine more sites and whether arsenic is underground on the property.

Arsenic is one of the most toxic substances on earth, according to the EPA. It causes irritation of the stomach and intestinal systems and decreases the production of red and white blood cells. Arsenic also increases the risk of skin, bladder, liver and lung cancer.

“Act First, Study Later” Approach, NRDC Charges

Melissa Lin Perrella

“Their position is that we’ll start construction and if there’s a problem we’ll take care of it,” Melissa Lin Perrella, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says. “They took an act-first-study-later approach.”

Thurman says the Coast Guard and the Port Authority have shown total disregard for the community and the disproportionate environmental burden borne by it.

“The Port Authority never gave it any thought to whether or not the contaminants they have on their property might be migrating off into the residential community,” she says.

“I’m disgusted with how they’ve minimized the importance of the communities that are here and how they’ve minimized the importance of the people. They’ve minimized the conditions that we have to deal with. That’s what I’m disgusted with. We’re literally collateral damage to anything that takes place here.”

Neighborhood Blight Inspires Environmental Activism

Angelo Logan

Coming of age in Commerce, Calif., was tough, Angelo Logan says. He lived in a blighted neighborhood surrounded by four rail yards. The yards, busy with trains and trucks running on diesel fuel, polluted the community and overwhelmed it with noise 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he says.

“As I grew into adulthood I started to notice…that there was an influx of asthma, bronchitis, lung and throat cancer in and around the neighborhood,” he says. “We had neighbors and very close friends who died from cancer.”

Logan, 46, co-founded East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice in 2002 to help Commerce and low-income minority communities in East Los Angeles and Long Beach fight projects that threaten to bring pollution to their neighborhoods.

Logan’s group is now battling plans to create a massive 153-acre rail yard next to West Long Beach, Calif., across the street from schools and near a day-care center, a park and a center for homeless children. The Southern California International Gateway project, known as SCIG, would replace the existing rail yard and be a hub for 2 million new truck trips and 6,000 new train trips a year, according to the Environmental Impact Report done by the Los Angeles Harbor Department.

East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, represented by the Natural Resources Defense Council, has filed suit in state court to stop SCIG from moving forward. The Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners approved the project in March.

Supporters of the project say it will protect the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach from losing ship traffic to East Coast ports that are ready to serve Post Panamax ships. It’s urgent that the project, in planning since 2005, move forward now, supporters say.

But opponents say the project will come at a cost.

“The SCIG project is a prime example of the way in which environmental racism plays out in the United States,” Logan says. “A proposal that would increase toxic pollution in a neighborhood of predominantly people of color and low-income when there are alternatives to that project is unjust.”

Supporters say the new rail yard will provide a major boost to the economy, creating 22,000 jobs by 2035 and pouring millions of dollars into the economy. Up to 100,000 jobs could be lost, supporters say, if the rail yard isn’t built. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach take in about 40 percent of the container traffic imported into the U.S., making them among the busiest shipyards in the world.

BNSF, a railway owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation, will operate the rail yard. The railway says it will provide moving expenses for residents who want to relocate and training for residents who want to qualify for jobs.

BNSF says it will spend $1 million on environmental initiatives to create the greenest rail yard in the country. The rail yard will use all electric cranes, solar panels and ultra-low-emission switching locomotives, which move rail cars at the yard, among other steps, it says. It will use low-glare lighting and construct a 12-foot-high sound wall, the railway says.

BNSF has trumpeted the fact that it will require trucks that use the facility to be model year 2010 or newer, surpassing the state standard of model year 2007. Newer truck engines burn fuel more cleanly and more efficiently. Environmentalists point out that BNSF is merely living up to EPA standards, which require trucks to be model 2010 or newer.

BNSF took out a full-page ad in local papers asserting that the environmental impact report shows that diesel particulate matter – tiny bits of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air – would decrease dramatically in West Long Beach if the Southern California International Gateway project is built.

Lena Kent

“The EIR confirms that proceeding with the project results in significant air quality and health risk improvements for residents in the area (including those closest to the facility)….” BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent says in an e-mail response to questions. “BNSF is ready to invest $500 million in private funds to develop the Southern California International Gateway that will bring cleaner air and thousands of new jobs.”

But the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a regional agency, disagrees and has filed suit in state court to force the city of Los Angeles to reconsider its approval of SCIG. In a letter in March to the Port of Los Angeles the agency says that the environmental impact report “does not fully describe the air quality and public health implications” of the project.

Based on data from the report, the agency says, the project would release nitrogen dioxide, a chemical emitted by diesel fuel, up to 250 percent above the level permitted by EPA regulations. It would produce small particulate matter up to 420 percent above allowed amounts and finer particulate matter up to 80 percent above permissible levels, the agency says.

“These pollutants are associated with chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma, as well as declines in pulmonary function, especially in children,” Susan Nakamura, planning manager for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, writes.

In a tape of a March 7 hearing before the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster (D) asks whether the board would approve the project if Warren Buffett lived 20 feet from it.

“The only difference between my residents and Warren Buffett,” Foster says, “is wealth.”

Rose Ellen O'Connor

Rose Ellen O'Connor

Rose Ellen O'Connor is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, NBC News, People magazine and The Oregonian.

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  • Captain Dan Kipnis

    Seems the same scenario is playing out all over the east coast. Government & ports say that tens of thousands of high paying jobs will be created, billions of dollars in revenue, minimal environmental damage. Concerned parties be they environmental organizations, state departments of environmental protection and fisheries, NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service and the EPA all have misgivings and have opposed each project on basically the same grounds. In the end there is a good chance that, unknowns and the possibility that the true effects of environmental degradation that will result, have been whitewashed and will prove worse than Governments and ports told us. I guess that 8-10 years from now we might be saying “I told you so”.