By Jessica Portner
Dozens of Long Beach residents, members of the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, have been on a non-stop campaign to protest a plan to build a rail yard in West Long Beach.
Members of the diverse group hoisted hand-made signs and held a 24-hour hunger strike, protest, and candlelight vigil a few months ago in front of then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s home. The intent was to urge the mayor to press the Los Angeles City Council to vote against the project, which the group said would worsen their air quality. Despite losing that battle and others along the way, the committed group will hold youth meetings and have yard sales throughout the summer to press their case.
Elena Rodriguez, surrounded by her candle-bearing Long Beach neighbors at the recent vigil, held a sign with “Pollution is Profit” emblazoned with red train cars. She said she sacrificed her breakfast, lunch and dinner to take a stand for her daughter.
“We live two blocks away…why are they building a toxic rail yard near a school? We have to fight,” she said. “I am fighting for my life and for my family’s life.”
The Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) BNSF Railway has proposed to construct a new yard a few miles from the Port of Long Beach, which proponents say would boost the local economy and create jobs. The 153-acre facility would enable a large volume of trucks to load containers onto trains closer to the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. The facility is designed to handle more than 2.8 million container units, according to the Port of Los Angeles.
BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent defended the project, saying the environmental impact survey shows that the SKIG would “greatly improve air quality for residents” who are living close to the rail yard as well as the millions of people living along the 710 freeway because the project cuts down on truck traffic. Currently, the ships that come into the port have to unload containers onto trucks that carry them to the downtown L.A. facility, which is 24 miles away, she said. She points to a study conducted by the Los Angeles Harbor Department, which found “the environmental impacts of the proposed Project are less than significant” and the report concludes that “no mitigation measures” are required under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Kent added that BNSF has set aside $100 million of the $500 million project for green technologies. They will deploy trucks equipped with GPS, for example, to insure they are using industrial routes.
East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, however, say the containers arriving at the rail yard would be loaded on trucks traveling from the Port through densely populated working class residential communities, schools, senior and day care centers. The same Long Beach communities also faces the possible expansion one of Southern California’s main arteries, the 710 freeway, which thousands of big-rig and diesel trucks use every day to transport goods from the ports. The East Yard group claims that the diesel fumes from two of the busiest in the nation combined with a constant stream of exhaust from the freeways will hike the region’s ozone smog and fine particulate matter levels further.
This summer, after the city of Los Angeles approved the project, Long Beach city officials last month filed a lawsuit asking the court to set the decision of their neighboring city aside. The Port of Long Beach weighed in as well.
“Improvement of rail facilities is critical to the economic development of this port, and improved rail facilities are what we need in order to reduce emissions,” said Harbor Commission President Susan E. Anderson Wise in a story posted on the Port of Long Beach website. However, “everyone can do better on this project than has been done so far.”
Air Quality and Ailments
The Los Angeles-Long Beach area was rated among the worst in air quality in the American Lung Association’s 2010 State of the Air Report. Public health studies show that environmental pollutants are associated with a range of ailments. A study by the South Coast Air Quality Management District revealed that some pollutants tend to be more toxic than others: about 85 percent of risk of cancer from air pollution comes from diesel exhaust alone. Children living within 500 feet of busy roadways have increased risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, according to a 2004 study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. Low-income and minority residents are hardest hit.
Jessica Tovar, a project manager for the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, said that in the U.S., 8 percent of people suffer from asthma, compared with 10 percent in California, and 14 percent in Long Beach. “We have been getting better and better at researching health effects of the refineries and rail yards,” she said. “The close proximity to roadways is going to further impact lung capacity of children.”
Kristen Guzman, a professor at Santa Ana College, a Long Beach resident and a member of the East Yard group said they are in it for the long haul.
“One of the things we often commiserate about is you can dust your house and windowsills one day and within 24 hours you can see the grimy grey dust that will collect there,” Guzman said. “Many kids have breathing problems and the biggest issue for us is it doesn’t need to get worse.”