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Port Of San Diego Weighs Including Environmental Justice In Master Plan

A wind turbine blade at the 10th Avenue Marine terminal in San Diego on Sep. 29, 2020.
Erik Anderson
A wind turbine blade at the 10th Avenue Marine terminal in San Diego on Sep. 29, 2020.
The public agency that manages the tidelands around San Diego Bay is considering adjusting the way it does business. The Port of San Diego’s new master plan, a planning document for the next three decades, could include a focus on Environmental Justice.

The public agency that manages the tidelands around San Diego Bay is considering adjusting the way it does business, essentially adding environmental justice to the Port of San Diego's master plan.

When trucks rumble through bayside San Diego neighborhoods some see economic vitality. But the economic payload comes with a cost. A cost that’s frequently paid by neighborhoods like Barrio Logan.

Port Of San Diego Weighs Including Environmental Justice In Master Plan
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

“Barrio Logan is in the top 5% of the areas most polluted by diesel pollution in California,” said Diane Takvorian, executive director of the National City-based Environmental Health Coalition.

Port Of San Diego Weighs Including Environmental Justice In Master Plan

Takvorian has, for 30 years, pushed Barrio Logan residents to lobby the Port of San Diego to clean up its operations. The pollution there pushes local asthma rates up to some of the worst in the state and that’s not the only health impact.

"We have some of the highest rates of COVID infections and mortality in Barrio Logan, National City, and other parts of the South Bay. So this is serious. People’s lives depend on it,” Takvorian said.

Local residents forced the port to listen as commissioners debated a contract with Mitsubishi late last year. The project would have greatly increased the number of diesel trucks driving in and out of the port's Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal.

The neighborhood spoke out and the port shelved the idea, for now.

“Over the last several years, there’s been a gradual change toward collaboration,” said Jason Giffen, the Port's vice president of Planning, Environment and Government Relations.

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The agency is considering doing something that is rare because it could become one of the first ports in California to add an environmental justice element to their master planning document.

That would be a huge win for bayside communities.

“They have more than their fair share of impacts,” Giffen said. “We look at this an opportunity and we look at it as a way to guide the future together to reduce impact specifically around some of the neighboring communities around the port.”

The change would force the Port to do more than just consider economic, recreational, or public access when the agency considers projects or leases in the tidelands.

The port would have to consider how policies or projects impact nearby neighborhoods.

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“We’re at a point, an inflection point, where we can set the balance for the next 30 years and really focus on improving air quality, environmental quality,” Giffen said. “And recently we’ve really seen an investment by the Port and an acceleration into advancing clean water and clean air programs at our marine terminals and also in the working waterfront.”

The port is already moving to electrify vehicles at its marine terminals.

There are efforts to move truck traffic around residential neighborhoods and there’s a push to increase access to transit.

But the environmental justice element is still met with skepticism.

“It’s a good sentiment and it’s an important goal,” Takvorian said. “But what’s really important is that they actually materialize that in the actions that they take.”

The push to keep environmental justice from being a paper change has allies on the board of Port Commissioners.

The Port's Board Chair Michael Zuchett pointed out that the port wants healthy thriving neighbors.

Clean air is a priority for him and he thinks electrification of port vehicles is an important strategy.

“We want the Port to be a leader on that front because we’re a public agency and we care about public health,” Zucchet said. “But also because those who lead on this issue will get the funding, the grant funding, the support that’s needed to make these transitions. And I want to make sure the Port’s on the front side of that.”

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And the Board of Port Commissioners newest member, Sandy Naranjo from National City, wants to build on the progress that’s already happening.

“The port is shifting and I want to be, as my role as Port Commissioner, I want to push for that, so we can be leading not just in our region, but in our state, nationally,” Naranjo said.

She brings a history of community activism to the job and she is excited that the port’s master planning document will have an environmental justice element.

“This is going to be part of our operations, our lens, how we look at things is through the environmental justice lens,” Naranjo said.

Recovering from the financial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic will grab a lot of attention at the port this year, but the agency could also keep bayside neighbors in the discussion if environmental justice is part of the business equation.