New Off-Port Study Reignites Deep Concerns

  • 06/14/2018
  • Paul Rosenberg

Community members weigh in on HCBF report

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

On Dec. 10, 2009, the Port of Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners rejected a community proposal for a 10-year Off-Port Impacts Nexus Study, the top recommendation from the Port Community Advisory Committee for spending money from the China Shipping Mitigation Fund. Two of the three original China Shipping plaintiffs, Janet Gunter and Andrew Mardesich, (Mardesich recently died), were among more than a dozen residents who testified in support of the proposal rejected by the board.

Now, almost a decade later, the Harbor Community Benefits Foundation has released a more modest version, Harbor Community Off-Port Land Use Study. Though more limited in size and scope, it has identified 11 distinct multi-pronged pathways through, which port impacts affect residents’ health and well-being, and it has a similar long-term intent: to help guide port development in a new, more community-friendly way, identifying and reducing the wide range of harmful impacts. These have traditionally just been ignored.

As Random Lengths News reported in 2009:

[The Port Community Advisory Committee]’s top recommendation was for a study of off-port impacts of port development on quality of life aside from air pollution, which would establish a legal nexus between port development and off-port impacts that is necessary for the State Lands Commission to approve off-port spending. It would also create a framework for evaluating such impacts and avoiding or mitigating them in a systematic, rather than an ad hoc, haphazard manner.

The more modest Harbor Community Benefits Foundation study was not intended to establish the legal nexus, but it did lay the groundwork by systematically organizing and adding to what is known about the various ways port operations impact the quality of life in Wilmington and San Pedro neighborhoods. Random Lengths News reached out to a wide range of people, seeking comments about foundation’s study and the prospects of building on it in order to achieve the long-sought long-term goal of community-friendly port development.

“It’s extremely important to return to these issues that have been continually dismissed by the port for decades,” Gunter said. “It is vital to have the port acknowledge their lack of response and flagrant denial of community concerns. It’s time for the port commission and port staff to reflect on the proven truth and legitimacy of those concerns and for establishing a correction of the port’s instituted policy of ignoring port community residents.”

“The year was 2009, and the port wasn’t interested and still isn’t,” said former PCAC co-chairwoman June Smith. “How much money could have been saved by both individuals and the port if such a forward looking proposal had been implemented decades ago?” she asked. “How much trust could have been built between the port and the citizens it serves?

“That, unfortunately can’t be measured, but the benefits to cooperation rather than constant legal threats and warfare are enormous. Take the current Ports O’Call litigation as an example.  Will it take another lawsuit?  Or two? Or three?”

“The HCBF report validates what has been obvious to residents and officials for decades,” said long-time PCAC member Peter Warren.  “The Port of LA practices and institutionalizes environmental injustice. The port externalizes billions of dollars of costs in the form of air pollution (and other impacts) onto the communities of San Pedro and Wilmington, as well as a host of other places up the goods movement supply chain. It does very little to empower those communities or allow them input on decision-making.”

Still, it’s not as bad as it once was, notes Slobodan Dimitrov, a former Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council board member, who sometimes contributes photographs for Random Lengths News.

“The Port of LA, like any human endeavor, is a work in progress,” Dimitrov said. “I remember the days, when other than labor driven issues, lighting the bridge fueled community activism. It has come a long way since. The bridge lighting issue was noted for being insular and not privy to the likes of the average person. Meetings were often closed, and attended by a select group of council supporters. It felt like one had to ‘buy in’ in order to participate. Thankfully, those days are behind us.”

But just how far behind? Given how port leadership turned its back on studying off-port impacts in the past, it’s natural to ask how it should respond now.

Former port ottorney Pat Nave began by raising a key point.

“The State Lands Commission doesn’t have to give prior approval of spending for off-port impacts,” Nave said. “The on and off port impacts dichotomy is a myth…. The Harbor Commission can pay for the costs of port operations and this includes off-port impacts. There are lots of examples of this up and down the state.”

“Port staff and the Harbor Commissioners should embrace the study, they should engage in dialogue and debate on the study,” said Angelo Logan, former executive director of East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice, who currently is an HCBF board member. “If folks believe that information is either incorrect, or not fully studied, then they should engage with the study. It’s like anything else. It is one point of information.”

Perhaps the most basic accomplishment of the study was to systematize the study of community complaints which have previously only been heard in unquantified, anecdotal form. These fell into five broad areas, with 11 “pathway diagrams” showing industrial impacts on residents’ everyday lives.

“The systematic study of port impacts is vital to understanding the present and future state of the port community,” said Carl Southwell, president of the Risk and Policy Institute. “The present study is an important first step.”

“In some cases, community comments are valid just on their faces and they need to be taken into consideration,” Logan said. “Other concerns and comments may need more information and that’s why studies like this are important, both for the community and for the port itself.”

The study also found far fewer port-related jobs in Wilmington and San Pedro than commonly assumed — only a projected 3.5 percent of employed local residents.

“Sounds accurate,” Southwell said. “It is consistent with the lack of overall social equity. The history of the area is tied to exploitation — the fishing industry and species collapse; the forced removal of the Japanese village; the oil industry and the subsidence disaster; the port and the air quality disaster.”

“The port has been pushing the false concept that jobs are somehow mitigation for the intense negative health and safety impacts levied against local communities by the goods-movement industry,” said Kathleen Woodfield, vice president of the San Pedro Peninsula Homeowners’ Coalition. “But we know that jobs are not mitigation…. Still, some of us took satisfaction in the idea that a significant amount of neighborhood households were at least enjoying the benefits of good-paying, port-related jobs. Now we know even that isn’t true.”

However, Nave urged caution.

“Compare this figure with past port studies done by outside consultants, some done to support bond issues and which show far higher numbers,” he said, suggesting, among other sources, the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., which Random Lengths News had sought data from for its first story on this study.

Random Lengths News will continue to investigate, but one thing is clear: this long-standing assumption can no longer be taken as a given. Harbor Commissioner David Arian also challenged the new findings — highlighting the important fact that pensioners were not counted — and promising that more accurate data would be gathered in months ahead.

Relatedly, the study validated the common perception that Wilmington and San Pedro are unique in having lower home values, the closer one gets to the ocean.

“What has been established by this study is that those who have been employed with good paying jobs connected with the port move out of their port communities when given that option for a better quality of life environment,” Gunter said. “It is a simple scenario where they (the port) ‘raped and pillaged their village.’ So, the villagers simply move out when they can afford to do so. The port and City of LA need to unite with the ‘villagers’ in an attempt to rectify this dismal situation.”

The study also recommended the reinstatement of PCAC “to assess impacts of Port developments on the surrounding communities, make recommendations to ensure that impacts are sufficiently addressed, and to serve as community advisors to the Port of Los Angeles.”

“Most major cities have community advisory boards for major enterprises,” Warren said. “It is past time for the city to establish a new residents board, including reps from residents associations and neighborhood councils to provide direct input to the Board of Harbor Commissioners…. The current port and city leadership has done great harm to the port and community through its failure to gather, heed and empower community leadership with regard to off-port impacts from the goods movement industry.”

One crucial question is what should be done next, in response to the report.

“The ports themselves should seriously look at the study, really understand it and also be able to embrace this study, and studies beyond this,” Logan said. “The study itself is not a decision, the study itself is information…. Information is good, there’s nothing bad about more information. So … the port should embrace the study.”

The same applies to the city as well.

“This is an asset to the city,” Logan said. “They should take it and embrace it, and determine the actions to be taken.”

But Southwell was more pessimistic.

“The port and the city speak in unison,” he said. “In general, the needs of the local community have always been subordinate.”

“The port/city should immediately restore a port/community committee that serves as the watchdog for the local communities,” Gunter said. “This committee should not be ‘peppered’ (as was PCAC) with industry representatives…. It should be solely committed to the concerns of those who ‘live’ under the conditions caused by the massive industrial operation and benefit financially in no way from it.”

As for neighborhood councils, they “should really embrace this,” Logan said.

“It helps to inform community advocates,” he said. “I would encourage folks to be more engaged with the study and others like this… so they can be well-informed, well-engaged, advocates.”

Nave took a broader view of who could act.

“The county grand jury has the power to look at administrative efficiency in city governance,” he pointed out.  “I’d like to see them look at why the port hasn’t addressed environmental and societal impacts.”

Logan looked even farther afield.

“The State Lands Commission, the Coastal Commission and … other ports across the country should look at this as an example,” he said. “That is a positive thing and that they should look at ways in which they should study the impacts and how they might addresses things into the future.”

In fact, Random Lengths News’ story about the study has been sent out to members of the Moving Forward Network and a leading Kansas City activist, Eric Kirkendall, responded enthusiastically.

“I am going to study it closely to try to figure out if and how we could do similar analyses in overburdened communities in the KC metro area!” Kirkendall said.

“A purposeful attempt needs to be made in order to establish the nexus to mitigate losses,” Gunter said.  “The next step is to the fully employ our public officials to pressure the State Lands Commission to step in to do their job of [ensuring] that public benefits from the use of public trust lands are met without prejudice or favoritism toward industry…. The benefit versus burden strategy is imperative and has clearly been buried for decades.”

But, looking back, Dimitrov sees reason for hope.

“While some may say we haven’t moved much further, I disagree. By allowing for an entity, like the HCBF, as a lens and tool is as Professor Sloane said, ‘Obvious,’ to further port dialogues!’” he said. “One might say it’s not enough. However, having seen the previous period of aloof arrogance from the district to the port levels, the fact that the existing communities, surrounding the port, have a place at the table is very big win.”

The question remains: how and what to build on it.


Editors’ Note: Random Lengths News also reached out to others for comments, including the San Pedro and Wilmington Chambers of Commerce, as well as the National Resources Defense Council, but did not hear back before press time. We look forward to including more voices in the future on this new report.

Share this article: