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Ports on the East Coast are looking forward to 2015 when the Panama Canal completes its big expansion. On the West Coast, not so much. That's because more goods will be able to bypass Western ports - especially here in Los Angeles.

To stay competitive, L.A. has launched a multibillion dollar effort to transform the county's sprawling ports into what it calls an international gateway. Now that project has run into a pair of high profile lawsuits by environmentalists seeking to halt construction of a $500 million rail yard next to the Port of Los Angeles.

NPR's Kirk Siegler has the story.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Combined, the side-by-side ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles handle almost half of all the consumer goods shipped into the U.S. And this clearinghouse of globalization takes up a lot of real estate.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

SIEGLER: Drive over the Vincent Thomas Bridge and stacks of blue and red cargo containers stretch for miles in every direction.

WALLY BAKER: And of course when you come over the bridge, it is unbelievable. I mean, we have so many terminals here.

SIEGLER: Wally Baker's face widens into a big grin as he surveys the panoramic view from a dock at the L.A. Maritime Museum. He can make sense of this overwhelming scene, telling you exactly what each of the skyscraper-size cranes and trucks and ships are doing here at any moment.

BAKER: We have a huge amount of capacity, and you would think that's going to be enough, but the reality is, it won't be enough.

SIEGLER: Not enough, he says, to compete with a wider Panama Canal, that industry analysts say could send about 20 to 30 percent of the Port of L.A.'s business to the Gulf and East Coast. That's why Baker is spearheading an effort with local unions called Beat the Canal. Job number one is to get a new rail yard built a few miles east of these docks.

BAKER: That's a big advantage, is that you can take stuff off the ship, have it there in a couple of hours, build a train, go to Chicago, and you don't stop.

SIEGLER: Right now, most cargo has to be trucked to rail yards 25 miles away, in some cases further.

JOSE MACHUKA: Sometime when the traffic's terrible, we have to drive three, four hour, come back from San Bernardino to here, to the L.A. port.

SIEGLER: Jose Machuka is one of the thousands of truck drivers who move the freight from the ships to those rail yards every day. He thinks a new rail yard closer in is a good idea because shorter trips would mean fewer hours stuck in traffic, and more money in his pocket.

MACHUKA: We like to work eight, 10 hours a day, but not 14. 16. You know, it's a lot.

SIEGLER: But where people like Jose Machuka or Wally Baker see commerce and the potential for new jobs, others see a much bleaker scene if the rail yard gets built.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE)

SIEGLER: There are predictions that the rail yard would add up to 5,000 new truck trips a day, belching more diesel exhaust into air that's already polluted by ships, power plants and oil refineries. And that's at the heart of the lawsuits to stop the project.

ANGELO LOGAN: When something's wrong, you got to stand up and say, this is wrong, we cannot allow it to move forward.

SIEGLER: Angelo Logan runs a group called East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, which is joining with the Natural Resources Defense Council in one of the court challenges. He isn't buying the port and the city's promises that the new rail yard will be a green facility and help reduce pollution.

LOGAN: It's like saying, you know, don't worry about it, it's a cigarette, but it's a filtered cigarette.

SIEGLER: Exhibit A for the opposition's case is West Long Beach, which lies just a couple hundred yards from the proposed site. The working-class neighborhood is a mix of African-Americans and immigrants from Mexico. Here, health studies have long found alarmingly high rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease.

VERONICA GUERRERO: (Foreign Language Spoken)

SIEGLER: At the Westside Christian Church on Willow Street, Veronica Guerrero, wife of the pastor here, says she and her neighbors are well aware of the risks of living downwind of all this industrial activity.

GUERRERO: But on top of that, we have this project that are trying to get closer to the neighborhoods than they already are, and that really bothers me, that really worries me.

SIEGLER: Whether the port can stay competitive is not Guerrero's concern. She says she and many of her neighbors feel powerless. Backers of the rail yard project, she says, can't appreciate their situation.

GUERRERO: Even I have heard other arguments like, if you don't like it here, why don't you leave, you know? It's not that easy.

SIEGLER: So you've got locals talking about environmental justice and the businessmen and unions talking about economic growth. And both sides have their own studies that show pollution increasing, or decreasing if the rail yard gets built.

One of the only certainties at this point is that the lawsuits will slow every thing down.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER AND DOCK NOISES)

SIEGLER: And back at the port of L.A., Wally Baker of Beat the Canal says that sends the wrong message.

BAKER: That it takes eight years or 12 years to get your project in place, and that somebody can sue you, even though you did everything they wanted to do, you spent $40 million and then somebody still wants to sue you. That's a really bad message.

SIEGLER: Now even without a court battle, the proposed $500 million rail yard wouldn't be built in time for the expected opening of the widened Panama Canal. That's scheduled for later next year, just about the time L.A.'s project hoped to break ground.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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