On March 30, 2016, BNSF Railway’s Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) project was dealt a blow by Superior Court Judge Barry P. Goode. In a 200-page ruling, Judge Goode held that the City of Los Angeles and its Port failed to perform adequate environmental analysis before approving the massive SCIG railyard, which would be constructed adjacent to many residents, schools and businesses in West Long Beach.
“We are relieved that the court heard and understood our concerns about the impacts of the SCIG project, which would significantly increase air pollution in an area where residents already face too many health hazards,” said Long Beach City Attorney Charles Parkin. “With this ruling, the Port and BNSF must re-examine opportunities to avoid the project’s effects on public health and quality of life in West Long Beach and neighboring communities.”
The court record demonstrated that the new railyard would have added significant air pollution to the region. The project, which included a 50-year lease to BNSF, would have directed thousands of diesel trucks and miles of diesel trains close to schools, daycare centers, playing fields and residences on a daily basis. By 2035, the project would have generated two million truck trips per year to and from the site, and the loading and unloading of more than 1.5 million shipping containers annually.
The Port and the City of Los Angeles voted to certify the Environmental Impact Report for the SGIG railyard in 2013, over the strenuous objections of numerous public agencies and non-profit organizations concerned about its environmental impacts. In all, seven lawsuits were consolidated into one case that focused on the increase in pollution resulting from the project. The original petitioners included the City of Long Beach; the South Coast Air Quality Management District; a number of community and environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council; the Long Beach Unified School District; and several transportation companies with business at the Port. The California Attorney General’s Office later intervened in support of the petitioners. At the request of the City of Los Angeles and the Port, the case was moved out of Los Angeles, and the parties agreed to Contra Costa County as the new venue.
“We understand that the Port of Los Angeles provides an important economic engine to the region, but that doesn’t mean that it can bypass laws designed to protect the environment and public health,” said Michael Mais, Assistant City Attorney of Long Beach. “The Port of Los Angeles was required to do its best to limit the environmental harm of this project, and the court agreed with petitioners that the Port’s efforts fell far short.”
The biggest concerns about the project centered on threats to the public health of communities closest to the project site. The City of Long Beach argued that the Environmental Impact Report violated CEQA by omitting basic information about the project and by minimizing its predicted impacts. The City’s lawsuit stated that the EIR “systematically understate[d] the Project’s environmental impacts” and was therefore both misleading and inadequate under state law.
The most glaring shortcomings related to the EIR’s analysis of air quality, greenhouse gas, noise, and traffic impacts. For example, the court found that the EIR used a flawed approach to measuring the noise impacts of the SCIG facility, which would operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Instead of considering the maximum acceptable level of individual noise events, the document focused on “average” noise impacts. This approach was misleading because residents would likely be awakened on a regular basis by nighttime train passbys that would exceed existing local noise ordinances.
The court also concluded that the EIR provided a misleading analysis of SCIG’s impacts on air quality, erroneously suggesting that the project would actually improve air in the region. The court also found that the EIR’s primary air quality mitigation measure, which provides for periodic review of new technology at the railyard, was unenforceable because it would be implemented only at BNSF’s discretion. As a result, the court explained, the Port’s approval “could leave outdated technology locked into a major project for half a century.”
The court also found that the EIR failed to analyze the SCIG project’s impacts on BNSF’s existing Hobart facility in the City of Commerce. This omission was a fundamental error, causing the EIR to underestimate SCIG’s effects, including its capacity to induce further growth in the area. By failing to take the Hobart impacts into account, the EIR provided an inaccurate assessment of the project’s impacts on climate change, among other impacts. Similarly, the EIR failed to analyze the combined, or cumulative, impacts from SCIG and the nearby ICTF railyard.
As a result of these CEQA violations, the court vacated the project approvals by the Port and the City of Los Angeles, and suspended all project activities until the Port and City properly comply with CEQA. The agency must complete a more robust and accurate analysis of the environmental impacts of the project before it can move forward.
The Long Beach City Attorney’s office was assisted in this matter by Bay Area outside counsel Rachel Hooper and Winter King of the law firm of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, LLP.