Updated at 6:30 p.m. with the Natural Resources Defense Council threatening to sue to block the project and Mayor Bob Foster's testimony.
Despite opposition by environmentalists, Long Beach City Hall and one of the state's largest school district concerned about children's health, the BNSF Railyway's $500 million project was approved today by the L.A. City Council.
More than 500 people packed the council chamber at L.A. City Hall for the approval of BNSF Railway's half-billion-dollar near-dock rail yard. With the Panama Canal scheduled to open a new set of locks to accommodate larger container ships in 2015, City Council members citied increased competition from East Coast ports for Asian trade as a reason to improve the port's cargo handling ability.
Today's 11-2 vote approved environmental findings necessary for the overall project's approval, a lease agreement to allow BNSF to build on port property, as well as a 50-year permit to construct the facility. The switching yards and tracks would be about four miles from the Port of Los Angeles. The council denied appeals by detractors, including the city of Long Beach, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Long Beach Unified School District, environmental justice groups and trucking businesses. Long Beach and Wilmington residents and members of environmental groups who oppose the project say it would be too close to schools and homes.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) indicated Wednesday that it may sue to block the project. Before the vote, NRDC lawyer David Pettit told the council he planned to filed a lawsuit if the project was approved, saying the rail yard could constitute violations of the state Environmental Quality Act and civil rights law.
Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster told the L.A. Council that the two cities have successfully collaborated on port projects in the past, but the BNSF project was different.
``Frankly these communities deserve better,'' he said.
The project is ``shockingly close to homes,'' he said. Some homes are only about 20 feet away from project boundaries, and no one is providing funding for the ``bare minimum of air filters and new windows.''
``This project can be made better,'' but the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, which shepherded the project through a seven-year long process, has not done anything to improve it, Foster said.
Representatives of labor and business groups, including the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said the project would help keep jobs in region.
Those against the project -- it will be formally known as the Southern California International Gateway -- said it would be built near four schools and homes in Wilmington and Long Beach. The Long Beach Harbor Commission, which governs the Port of Long Beach in the same Harbor as the Port of L.A., joined the Long Beach City Council in opposing the project on, among other things, residential health concerns.
Opponents urged the council to send back to the Harbor Commission the environmental impact report and lease agreement, saying there were no guarantees that BNSF would bem a zero-emissions operator.
--Nancy Wride contributed to this report