LAXT/kanter/20 inches/1stjc/mark2nd

LARRY KANTER Staff Reporter

TERMINAL ISLAND Call it “Coal-gate.”

Harbor-area residents are fuming over plans to build the West Coast’s largest storage facility for coal and petroleum coke on the edge of Terminal Island.

Currently under feverish, around-the-clock construction, the 111-acre, $120 million Los Angeles Export Terminal, or LAXT, eventually will house huge, black mountains of coal and coke awaiting shipment to the fuel plants and factories of Asia.

The facility scheduled to open in April is expected to be a boon for Western U.S. coal producers seeking new customers in the fast-growing economies of Asia and Latin America. The Port of L.A., meanwhile, eventually will pull in $10.7 million a year in rents paid by the terminal, which is located at the port’s new Pier 300 facility.

But neighbors in San Pedro and Wilmington fear such gains may be at the expense of their health and well-being. The U.S. Customs Service, which operates adjacent to the facility, is worried as well.

In addition, the Natural Resources Defense Council is investigating the complaints for possible legal action, said Gail Feuer, an attorney for the NRDC.

The main concern is that the facility which covers an area nearly the size of 100 football fields will not have a roof. Instead, the facility will use a state-of-the-art, computerized sprinkler system to moisten the piles and keep the dust down.

Residents fear that wind will carry coal dust and other contaminants into nearby neighborhoods and workplaces, threatening their health. A coalition of homeowner associations and environmental groups, Portwatch, is fighting to force LAXT officials to cover the facility.

“We already have terrible air quality in the harbor area,” said Gertrude Schwab, president of the Wilmington North Neighborhood Association. “I don’t see why the LAXT can’t put it in a dome.”

LAXT officials argue that building a roof over such a massive facility would be impractical from an engineering standpoint.

“It would take 10 Astrodomes to cover the (coal and coke) piles” and add more than $100 million to the terminal’s price tag, said LAXT spokesman Robert Alaniz.

Alaniz also said that storing coal and coke in confined spaces constitutes a potential fire hazard.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has issued a permit allowing the project to go forward. The permit requires the LAXT to monitor its coal and coke dust emissions four times a quarter.

AQMD Project Manager Billy Thompson said he was impressed by the LAXT’s dust abatement program. “They’ve taken the spray technology as far as it can go,” he said. “It’s a well-thought-out system.”

Meanwhile, as nearby residents fret about potential health hazards, a pair of powerful labor unions the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union and the Building Trades Council are angry about the lack of union involvement in the project’s construction and have been dispatching pickets to the site.

And the City of Long Beach has expressed concern over the impact that the dust could have on its new aquarium and waterfront development. A recent city-sponsored study found that coke dust from nearby storage facilities already is a nuisance in downtown Long Beach, with residents complaining about a fine layer of black dust that coats their patio furniture and automobiles, often eating away at the finish.

In the midst of the uproar, LAXT officials plan to begin storing coal and coke a black, sand-like residue of the petroleum-refining process used in steel making and power producing industries in late April. The facility plans to begin exporting coal and coke to Asia this fall.

Once the LAXT is up and running, six trains hauling 100 cars each are expected to arrive each day with coal from mines in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. About 600 trucks a day will bring in petroleum coke from the region’s oil refineries.

The increased traffic is of particular concern to the U.S. Customs Service, whose Ferry Street customhouse is located adjacent to the LAXT. The customs district recently installed a $5 million, high-tech laboratory with instruments including a brand new electron microscope that officials say could be jeopardized by the rumble of trains and trucks.

“We’d like to see a fund set up to take care of any health or property-damage problems that come as a result of the project,” said customs agent John Wilks.

The corporation that will run the facility, Los Angeles Export Terminal Inc., is jointly held by Japanese and American investors. The Port of Los Angeles, with a 15 percent stake in the project, is the largest single shareholder of LAXT, which is 51 percent owned by American interests.

Other major shareholders include Arco Coal Company, Mitsubishi Corp. and the Japan Energy Corporation.

The partnership came about when Japanese companies, who get most of their coal from mines in Australia, grew increasingly frustrated by high prices and mounting labor difficulties. U.S. suppliers, for their part, sought access to emerging markets in Asia.

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