Environmentalists Call LA Rail Project Racist

     LOS ANGELES (CN) - A massive railyard expansion at the port of Los Angeles is "environmental racism," the Natural Resources Defense Council claims in court.
     The NRDC's lawsuit comes one month after the LA City Council voted 11-2 to approve BNSF's Southern California International Gateway, a $500 million facility located 4 miles from the San Pedro ports.
     BNSF says the project will shorten the distance trucks travel between container ships and the rail network, currently 24 miles up the perpetually congested 710 freeway to East LA.
     The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach handle 40 percent of the nation's container cargo and account for a million jobs in California, according to BNSF's website.
     BNSF plans to build the project in Wilmington, a suburb of 51,000 located minutes from the busy ports.
     Environmentalists have focused their challenge on the fact that 87 percent of Wilmington's residents are blue collar and Latino.
     "The SCIG project typifies environmental racism," senior NRDC David Pettit said in a statement. "This project can be built away from where people live and children go to school, but the city of Los Angeles wants to put it in a low-income minority neighborhood because they think they can get away with it."
     East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, a local watchdog group, joined the NRDC as a plaintiff in petitioning the Los Angeles County Superior Court on June 7 for a write of mandate.
     Coalition for Clean Air, Century Villages at Cabrillo and two citizens, Elena Rodriguez and Evelyn Deloris Knight, are also plaintiffs in the action.
     They say the project - which will add 1 million truck and train trips through local neighborhoods - is unnecessary and targets LA's poorer minority neighborhoods.
     "This unnecessary project is not only dangerous to the health of the local working class, working poor communities of color but to the entire region," said Angelo Logan, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. "We are committed to fighting this project through all legal means. We believe that the alternative to this project is maximizing on-dock rail and have suggested a number of projects that could meet the port's cargo goals without building this monstrosity."
     The plaintiffs say LA approved the project in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), as well as state and federal civil rights laws.
     They also believe the project will increase cancer and asthma rates by increasing the area's chronic pollution, noting that children in the Long Beach area already suffer twice as many respiratory illnesses as the rest of LA County. NRDC has already urged city council members to use cleaner locomotives, expand on-dock rail to eliminate the need for the short truck trips through Wilmington and to use zero-emission container movement systems.
     "It is unbelievable that the port proposed a project of this magnitude without requiring use of the latest cutting edge technology to alleviate this community's staggering pollution burden," NRDC attorney Morgan Wyenn said in a statement. "This project will ensure more emergency room visits, lost school and work days and new cases of asthma and chronic respiratory disease for local residents while BNSF pulls in more profits."
     BNSF insists that it will implement all of NRDC's suggestions into the gateway plan. For starters, only trucks built after 2010 will be allowed to rumble through Wilmington. The rail giant says that by 2026, 90 percent of its truck fleet will run on natural gas or equivalent emission fuel and agreed to spend $3 million to develop new zero-emission goods movement technology.
     Meanwhile, labor unions are thrilled by the project, which will pump millions of dollars into the local economy and create thousands of jobs.
     "SCIG will create thousands of good construction jobs and thousands of permanent jobs at a time when unemployment still remains high," said Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the LA County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. "We also applaud BNSF for being a leader in creating the nation's greenest intermodal facility, significantly improving air quality and decreasing health risks in our communities."
     LA City Councilman Joe Buscaino said last month that by the time the project is completed, BNSF will have spent $100 million on green technology, clean trucks and zero-emissions research.
     "SCIG will be the greenest intermodal facility in the United States and will set the standard for future projects," Buscaino said.