Marquez seeks to restore wetlands
Wilmington area activist Jesse Marquez wants to bring wetlands and real coastal access back to his community which has been cutoff from the Pacific by a sprawling, industrial port complex.
By Tom Politeo
Tom Politeo/Harbor Vision Task Force
Jesse Marquez seeks to restore wetlands in Wilmington brownfields, which were once the center of 3500 acres of habitat.
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"Where's Jesse's wetland?" photo gallery
For all the length of California’s coast, dotted with beachside communities and sprawling urban areas, there is no place like Wilmington. Wilmington is situated at the south edge of Los Angeles County and entirely on the north side of San Pedro Bay, it’s coastline running east to west. For its entire length, there’s not one foot of natural coastline left in Wilmington—it has all been industrialized.
If there is such a thing as an unnatural stretch of coast, this is it. Wilmington’s coastline consists of docks, wharfs, berths, oil fields, concrete walls and riprap. Next to these man-made sites are cargo terminals with towering cranes, large asphalt lots stacked with huge shipping containers, railroad tracks, vast parking lots and large storage tanks filled with oil, fuels and all sorts of hazardous products.
But there are two exceptions. The first is Banning’s Landing, where a community center was built right next to the waterfront. Still, there’s no access to the water, and the vistas are entirely industrial.
The other is a small boat marina. Though this is an important facility in a harbor that has had a shortage of small boat berths, it is largely unlandscaped. The primary view from the marina is that of dilapidated oil pumps, land contaminated with hydrocarbons, cranes and industrial-looking bridges, just like the rest of Wilmington’s coast. Visually, it is more suited as the backdrop to a hardscape movie than a livable city.
This all stands in contrast to the Wilmington from a little over a century ago. Wilmington was then the queen of Southern California wetlands, a Hollywood stop over to Catalina Island casinos, neighbor to numerous local agricultural farms, the heart of about 3,500 acres of wetlands that used to be located along the edges of San Pedro Bay. When the Los Angeles River took its southerly course to the Pacific, it usually met the ocean in Wilmington.
It is impossible to imagine anywhere else on the coastline where nature could have been so completely destroyed. Ironically Wilmington is now called the “heart of the harbor,” by the Chamber of Commerce and downtown City Hall. Wilmington along with its San Pedro neighbors refers to the harbor area as the “diesel death zone.”
A matter of environmental justice
Wilmington area activist Jesse Marquez hopes to restore some of the wetlands that once were plentiful. He has a restoration site in mind: where the Dominguez Channel enters San Pedro Bay, near Wilmington’s small boat marina. For Marquez, it’s a matter of environmental justice. However, the Port of Los Angeles has other plans.
As part of the California Coastal Act, the large industrial ports are designated as the lead agency in approving their environmental impact reports. The port puts on one hat, and drafts the EIR as a developer. Then it puts on a second hat and reviews and approves its own EIRs.
Most port activists see this as a conflict of interest, making the process very sensitive to the altruism of the Board of Harbor Commissioners, something that comes and goes with political tides. Some view it as a deprivation of equal protection under the Coastal Act — where other EIRs are reviewed by the Coastal Commission, an independent agency.
The ports received the right to review their own EIRs in exchange for supporting the Coastal Act. The ports’ payback was to mitigate or restore four acres of land for every acre they industrialized.
In the 1970s, the hope among many activists around San Pedro Bay was that some of the 4 to 1 wetlands restoration would be done around the bay. Don May, once a Long Beach area activist who recently moved to Hawaii, recalls specific sites that were considered in San Pedro, Wilmington and Long Beach. One of these is the same location Marquez wants to restore now. It also happens to be the same general location for which Cal Poly Pomona students designed a comprehensive, inspiring wetlands restoration project last year.
But all along, the ports of L.A. and Long Beach had something different in mind. Port staff points out that they can get the mitigation credits they need for less money elsewhere along the coast. In other locations, the land was in better condition, thereby reducing costs, which is consistent with their fiscal responsibilities. At the same time, it helped the ports keep the local land available for revenue generating uses.
Now, the Port of Los Angeles is conducting an environmental review to expand a cargo container terminal located west along the coast from where Marquez wants to put a wetland. This is known as the TraPac Container Terminal Expansion project, after the company that runs the terminal. However, the port wants to put an on-dock rail yard in Marquez’s proposed wetlands. The yard will serve the TraPac expansion.
The Port of Los Angeles’ mitigation projects stretch south over 200 miles down the coast all the way to Batiquitos Lagoon near San Diego. There, as along other parts of the coast, natural wetlands comprise the community backyard to million dollar plus homes. Whereas this mitigation has certainly helped enhance the coastline near wealthy neighborhoods, it has left Wilmington wanting. Wilmington may be the most economically depressed area along California’s coast.
More than 90% of Wilmington’s residents are Hispanic, many with multi-generational roots in Wilmington. With high air pollution, industrial-strength noise, high rates of childhood asthma, poor zoning practices and industrial blight, WIlmington is a portrait of an environmental justice community.
The environmental problems in Wilmington are so pervasive and intertwined, that efforts to solve one problem can have the unintended effect of aggravating another. The on-dock rail yard to support the TraPac Container Terminal expansion is one example.
Environmental justice and community groups, like the Sierra Club and other groups with which Marquez works, have been advocating for on-dock rail to support port expansion projects. The use of on-dock rail reduces the number of big rig trucks that need to call on the port. In turn, that decreases the impacts trucks have traveling near or through local neighborhoods.
Community access to the Pacific
However, this on-dock rail site conflicts with the goal of reconnecting Wilmington with the natural environment.
It is not a sacrifice Marquez is willing to accept. He and other Wilmington residents would like a place where their families can experience the Pacific without having to leave town. After all, the Pacific Ocean is just a few hundred feet from their doorsteps. They would like to see the port plans integrate wetlands restoration, include public coastal water access, establish a marine fishery, a bay ocean water reclamation facility, other land use alternatives, incorporate clean goods movement technologies or limit expansion if they can’t.
Part of the problem may be rooted in the Port of Los Angeles Master plan. Wetland and environmental justice advocates have sought to restore at least 10% of the original wetland acreage found in San Pedro Bay. But neither the Port of Los Angeles nor Long Beach has accepted such a modest goal among its master planning objectives.
“The Wilmington community will not support any port expansion until our harbor communities rights to equal coastal access, green technology and quality of life enhancements are met,” Marquez says. “Our community needs access to nature to help us heal from the port industrialization that has plagued us for decades causing both an environmental and public health crisis.
“One day I hope to wake up in the morning and really experience a breath of fresh ocean air as I did as a child growing up.”