Report Sheds New Light on Who Benefits from POLA

  • 05/18/2018
  • Paul Rosenberg

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

Are the local ports really economic engines of the region? Absolutely. But is the Port of Los Angeles the economic engine of its own backyard, particularly the communities of Wilmington and San Pedro? That’s really an entirely different question. Highlighting that difference is just one of the features distinguishing a new report issued by the Harbor Community Benefits Foundation, the Harbor Community Off-Port Land Use Study: a Look at the Port of Los Angeles, San Pedro and Wilmington. 

When the foundation was created as part of the TraPac agreement, it was obligated to undertake an assessment of port impacts, which residents have complained about for decades, but have never been systematically examined — until now.

It was important to examine port impacts through a new lens, which has raised concerns from the State Lands Commission about it being legally sufficient to fund important mitigation projects using Port trust dollars. But the report was supposed to break new ground.

A major feature of the report is the identification of new potential foundations for making such findings in the future. It also presents new foundations for understanding benefits.

According to the report: “Of all the employed residents in the study area – we estimate that only 3.5 percent of them work in ‘port or port-related’ jobs in the full study area.” As a result, “while almost all study area households bear the direct and indirect negative impacts from living near the port and port-related operations, very few households reap the economic benefits of port or port-related employment.” This is a reality far different from 50 years ago. Port planners have never grappled with this type of reality.

“The report really comes out of the original agreement that set up the foundation,” said Harbor Community Benefits Foundation Board Chairman David Sloane, a professor at USC’s Price School of Public Policy. “That agreement mandated that the foundation do this kind of report.”

Sloane was backed up by County Supervisor Janice Hahn.

“As the architect of the Harbor Community Benefits Foundation, I can attest that it was meant to be a tool to mitigate the negative impacts of port operations on the residents of San Pedro and Wilmington,” Hahn told Random Lengths News. “This report proves what we have said for a long time — the negative impacts of port operations do not stop at the tidelands. Whether you measure the impacts in increased air pollution, in truck traffic, in the lack of recreational space, or in the amount of industry zoned near residential areas, it is clear the residents of Wilmington and San Pedro bear much more than their fair share of the burden created by port-related industries.”

In shaping the report, the hope was, in part, “that it will empower people by giving them systemic knowledge,” Sloane explained.  “The hope is that everyone from the port to local businesses, from the chamber to local community organizations will all be able to use the report. It is intended to provide a summary overview of the current conditions. It’s still not comprehensive, because we didn’t have enough money to really do everything that we would possibly want to do, but … it’s really full of rich information.”

This includes the hope — reflected in one of 38 recommendations — that it will help the port and its business partners to use the study’s findings to incorporate mitigation measures and community benefits into the planned infrastructure improvements.

In light of costly, time-consuming litigation, past and present, it just makes sense “to recognize the need for the community earlier is good business, and good for the community,” Sloane said.

More than a century without this has taken quite a toll.

“The report finds that the communities of San Pedro, Wilmington have eight times the number of cleanup sites and 65 times the number of groundwater impact sites per square mile compared to the rest of Los Angeles County,” Sloane said. “To me that’s just the remarkable thing, and then the other thing is 62 percent of residents live within 1,000 feet of a hazardous or polluting land-use.” Comparisons with county-wide averages occur throughout the report, almost always showing the Harbor Area at a disadvantage.

The 3.5 percent is based on census data — not employers’ records — and is only a projected estimate (see sidebar). It’s impossible to know the figure precisely, according to Sloane and Beth Altshuler, project manager for Raimi + Associates, who researched the study.

“We don’t have full data on this. But the number of people working at the port in Wilmington [and ] San Pedro seems to be smaller than I would’ve guessed, I have to say — by a lot,” Sloane said.

Although the analysis has lots of caveats, it’s still a very striking number, Altshuler said.

This reflects a broader, key fact about the report: much of what it uncovers has never been systematically studied before. It was only known anecdotally, if at all.  But it also makes a lot sense.

“Ports have long represented enormous economic engines, not just in LA, but around the world,” Sloane said. “And, those economic engines have always come with negative impacts. Most of the negative impacts are felt by the communities that surround them…. At the meeting we held [sharing findings with the community on April 21], one of the residents said, anecdotally, ‘When people get a job at the port, they moved to Lakewood. They get out of the port area.’ In fact, they had some name for it.”

“Wilmington is known locally as ‘Wilmas.’ It’s a gang territory reference,” former foundation board member Sylvia Betancourt said. “With many Wilmington residents moving to Lakewood once they get a job at the port, Lakewood is now referred to as ‘Lakemas.’”

“The port is a giant industrial complex, and people with more money don’t want to live near a giant industrial complex, they want to live away from it,” Sloane said, which also explains another, less surprising finding — that unlike elsewhere in California, Harbor Area home values do go down the closer one gets to the ocean. Other hazards reduce home values as well.

Moving anecdotal community knowledge into the quantified realm is perhaps the most important purpose of this report, spanning a wide range of issues grouped in five main categories: road and rail, land use, hazardous and polluting land uses, access to neighborhood goods and services, and employment and real estate.

The report not only quantifies what’s happening on the ground, it presents 11 plausible pathway diagrams connecting source activities involving the port and its business partners through multiple intermediate mediating impacts to resulting community impacts — 37 in all. These have long drawn complaints from residents, which were minimized or ignored by planners.

For example, high volumes of truck traffic increase air pollution, creating significant health effects. The port has made significant progress dealing with this impact, though not without problems. Noise and vibration also generate stress. There’s also damage to roadways, including potholes, which increase costs of vehicle repair and maintenance, as well as roadway maintenance. It also decreases willingness to walk or bike, reducing physical activity and outdoor time. Another intermediary pathway contributes to this result. Truck traffic and parked trucks reduce motorists’ visibility of pedestrians and other vehicles, which decreases perceptions of safety, increasing the risk of collisions.

“Even if we can’t prove every step of the pathway diagrams, we’re putting forth theoretical models to show what are the mechanisms at play, for how some of these community impacts are experienced and how they are connected to the port,” Altshuler said.

One of the report’s key findings: “Many at-grade railway crossings increase traffic delays and lack enhanced safety infrastructure ,which poses a safety risk to pedestrians and bicyclists,” reflected just two out of five causal pathways connecting rail impacts/at-grade crossings through eight mediating impacts with four community impacts. The other community impacts were increased stress from frequent significant delays, delayed response time for emergencies, and disturbed sleep and associated impacts, increased stress, reduced ability to concentrate at school or work.

In considering what to study, they began casting a very broad net.

“We set up some criteria to weed them down, and one of the important criteria was that it’s really important to the community, but it’s not well documented,” Altshuler explained. “So, the complaint of the State Lands Commission that were studying all these weird analyses that aren’t things that are traditional study topics… was by design. Even if no action is taken by the port … this was an important resource to provide to the community groups and residents.”

It’s also a potential foundation for future research.

“Each one of those pathways, diagrams, the exploration of each one of those diagrams could be someone’s dissertation,” Altshuler said. “Each one is its own really complicated vortex of research. So, we know this is just the start and that is something we’re OK with.”

One of the report’s recommendations is to “Partner with local colleges or universities … to expand the study’s research and identify innovative solutions for impacts raised in the report.”

The port’s response so far has been terse.

“The Port of Los Angeles has reviewed the HCBF Land Use Study and the two letters sent by State Lands Commission commenting on the study,” spokesman Phillip Sanfield informed Random Lengths News. “The port follows the State Lands Commission’s guidance on such matters.”

“Two of the recommendations are striking: bring back [Port Community Advisory Committee] and make truck drivers employees,” said Doug Epperhart, president of Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council.

In addition benefitting the drivers, the employment recommendation will make it easier to address other negative truck-related impacts.

“To have a community advisory board is a pretty standard thing in planning and developing now,” said Sloan, about restoring the PCAC. “You go to all the community organizations in the port, which seems like a very arduous task, or you bring them onto a advisory board, and you allow them to have a voice. And so, as a planning professor, it was like, ‘Oh, this is obvious.’”

A lot more should become obvious as community members and organizations begin to digest this report, arguably the most important to appear in at least a decade, as far as the Harbor Area is concerned.

“Because Harbor Area residents continue to suffer from higher rates of childhood asthma, cancer, and stroke, it is clear to me that the focus of the Harbor Community Benefits Foundation must continue to be the health of local residents,” Hahn said. “Their mission is far from over and I hope that they will be able to continue working far into the future.”

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