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Greens Lose Battle Over L.A. Port Highway

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Worries that a new highway linking Los Angeles and Long Beach will exacerbate air pollution are not enough to halt the project, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.

The Long Beach and LA port complex is the nation's busiest and the world's fifth-largest. Port operations account for 3.3 million U.S. jobs, but people living close to the port pay a high cost, breathing in some of the dirtiest air in the nation.

Particulate matter pollution from the ports has led to higher rates of cancer, asthma, heart attacks and respiratory illness in communities around the ports. The tiny particles are roughly 30 times smaller than a human hair and penetrate deep into the lungs.

The amount of cargo coming in and out of the port is expected to rise by 70 percent by the end of the decade, with a corresponding increase in dirty air.

With that in mind, the California and the federal government proposed the State Route 47 Expressway project to ease congestion and air pollution by improving the flow of traffic to and from the ports.

But in a 2009 lawsuit, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued to block the project, naming U.S. Department of Transportation, CalTrans, and project sponsor the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority as defendants.

In its filing, the group claimed that an environmental analysis of the highway ignored the impact of air pollution on neighborhoods next to the highway, including the City of Wilmington.

"The expressway is proposed to go through a residential area that is already suffering from amongst the highest air-pollution related cancer risk in Los Angeles County," the NRDC's lawsuit stated.

But in a 2012 ruling that balanced the harm to surrounding neighborhoods against the argument that the expressway would reduce congestion and pollution, U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt sided with the government agencies.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit compounded the NRDC's defeat Thursday by affirming Kronstadt's grant of summary judgment.

The agencies' failure to do a so-called "hot spot analysis" of particulate matter pollution in the neighborhoods close to the highway did not violate any environmental laws, Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the court. Judges John Noonan and Raymond Fisher concurred.

Wardlaw was satisfied that the agencies' air-quality analysis conformed with the Clean Air Act and Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

Since it was not clear that the agencies were required to take a closer look at air quality in the adjacent neighborhoods, Wardlaw said she would defer to their findings.

"NRDC offers no persuasive reason why we should not rely upon these agency interpretations," Wardlaw wrote.

An environmental impact statement took a "'hard look'" at the impact of the project's likely air pollution and at alternative sites for the expressway, under the National Environmental Policy Act, Wardlaw wrote.

The highway is part of a $180 million project to replace the Schuyler Heim Bridge in the Port of Los Angeles. Construction began in 2011.

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