Source: Long Beach Press Telegram
For years residents on Long Beach’s westside complained about a layer of soot blackening their homes and cars. Their cries were heard in the tony condos and apartments along Ocean Boulevard downtown where the wind also carried the soot.
The culprit causing this dirty pollution: dust blowing from piles of uncovered petroleum coke, a residue by-product of the oil-refining process, and coal piles standing out in the open at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.
Not much was being done about the problem until Alan Lowenthal, a college professor and a political unknown, got elected to the Long Beach City Council in 1992.
“As I was campaigning, one of the biggest complaints I heard was about all of this dirty stuff blowing from the ports onto people’s homes,” Lowenthal told me last week. “And, of course, adults and children were breathing this stuff, too.”
Lowenthal began crusading to have these coal and petcoke piles covered. It was not an easy job.
Terminal officials argued that covering the piles would be too expensive. They said they were controlling the dust with various devices, including sprinklers. But the dirty, black soot continued to plague Long Beach residents. The environmental age had not kicked in at the ports back then.
But Lowenthal and others persisted. Lowenthal continued his crusade when he was elected to the California Legislature in the late 1990s and introduced legislation that had tougher enforcement rules to reduce pollution.
Long Beach port officials had gotten the message earlier. In 1992 harbor commissioners approved construction of a huge shed, called the Oxbow Coal Shed, to cover the coal and petcoke. The shed was completed in 1994.
Coal and petcoke exports this year are projected at 1.72 million tons, down from a high of 2.35 million tons in 1996.
The action by the Long Beach Harbor Commission in approving the Oxbow Coal Shed was one of the first steps in cleaning up the port. Officials now proudly proclaim the port as “the Green Port” and a positive environmental role model for the nation.
That was one of the ironies last week as the Long Beach City Council voted unanimously to approve a 15-year lease for Oxbow Energy Solutions LLC, led by founder and CEO Bill Koch, and a 20-year renewal lease for Metropolitan Stevedore Co. to use a 5.4-acre site with that coal shed built in 1994.
Environmentalists questioned the ethics of shipping gas-emitting fuels to countries in Asia, primarily Japan. They also raised concerns about these fuels coming to Long Beach in open-air trains.
Council members agreed with harbor commissioners who said the shed was exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act because operations have not changed since a 1992 report found there would be no significant adverse environmental impacts from the shed operation.
Dealing with open coal trains is another matter, a federal matter because of the federal government regulates interstate transport of goods.
That is not within the purview of the Long Beach City Council members and harbor commissioners, but they can use their influence with the federal government and railroads to cover these trains.
They will find a willing ally in Lowenthal, now a U.S. congressman. Lowenthal said it is a complicated issue because of the many states and railroads involved, but that won’t deter him from looking deeper to find ways to solve the problem.
Just like he did 22 years ago as a freshman Long Beach city councilman when he cleaned up a lot of dirty soot plaguing residents.
Rich Archbold is public editor of the Press-Telegram. firstname.lastname@example.org