An effort to organize workers is threatening to scuttle a planned $50 million Palmdale facility that would build rail cars for L.A. County’s growing Metro system. Kinkisharyo International LCC and an electric workers union are at odds over the Japanese company’s staffing plans for the 400,000-square-foot plant, which would employ 250 workers if it opens in 2016. The union wants Kinkisharyo to allow the Palmdale plant to use card check, a process by which a workplace can unionize if 50 percent or more of workers sign cards stating they wantto be represented for collective bargaining. Typically, workplaces unionize by having employees vote, a more complex process that presents challenges to unions. However, the Japanese manufacturer has refused to agree to card check, which has prompted the union and its allies to file a California Environmental Quality Act challenge against the project, which is planned for 60 acres at Avenue M and Sierra Highway. The challenge could delay the start of construction and prompt the company to look elsewhere to build the plant. “This facility will provide 250 well-paid, career-oriented jobs. Instead, California may lose all these jobs.” said Kinkisharyo spokesman Coby King, chief executive of High Point Strategies, a Los Angeles public affairs and media relations firm. Antelope Valley Residents for Responsible Development is appealing a decision last month by the Palmdale Planning Commission recommending approval of a site plan, claiming the plan is based on outdated environmental impact reports. Among the group’s members listed in the appeal document is International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 11, in Pasadena. The Palmdale City Council is scheduled on Oct. 1 to take up the Commission’s recommendation. If the Council turns down the appeal, the electrical workers could challenges the decision in court. King said at that point, Kinkisharyo will have to decide whether it wants to pursue the project or look elsewhere. Kinkisharyo, the El Segundo-based U.S. arm of Kinki Sharyo Co. Ltd. of Osaka, was awarded a contract in August 2012 from Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro, for rail cars that would operate on the Blue, Gold and Expo lines and a planned extension of the Expo line to Los Angeles International Airport. It has previously supplied rail cars for projects in Dallas, Phoenix and other U.S. cities. In June, the Los Angeles City Council approved a five-year $6.4 million lease between Kinkisharyo and Los Angeles World Airports for a temporary assembly plant in two buildings LAWA owns in Palmdale. Kinkisharyo is doing final assembly of the first 78 rail cars for Metro at the facility before the opening of any permanent plant. It already has about 100 workers there. The final assembly process involves attaching the rail car body to the chassis – both of which are made in Osaka – and then installing the seats, lighting, heating, air conditioning, ventilation and propulsion systems. Finally, the cars are tested and delivered to Metro. King said Kinkisharyo will deliver the first 78 assembled cars next month as required under the Metro contract. Dave Walter, economic development manager for Palmdale, said the labor dispute is disappointing considering the effort put in by both sides to secure the local plant. “It is like stumbling on the five yard line when running for a touchdown,” he said. Attempts to reach a representative of the union were not successful. Tanya Gulessarian, an attorney with Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo PC, in South San Francisco, which represents Antelope Valley Residents for Responsible Development, also did not return calls for comment. Valley fever The proposed $50 million, 400,000-square-foot permanent plant would be used to assemble 97 light rail cars for Metro, and any orders the company receives from other U.S. customers. The work goes beyond final assembly to include manufacturing the car shells, though the rail truck would still be delivered from Japan. However, a 51-page appeal of the Planning Commission’s Aug. 7 decision prepared by Gulessarian asserts that the project could cause widespread environmental damage. Central to the argument are 1993 and 1996 environmental impact reports on the property that the appeal calls “outdated.” Neither report anticipated the property would be used for manufacturing of light rail cars. The 1993 report was done for the city’s general plan while the 1996 report was done for a proposed business park on the property. “The project is a new project with potentially significant impacts that triggers (California Environmental Quality Act’s) legal requirement to prepare an EIR,” the appeal said. Additional reasons cited are impacts from diesel exhaust from construction equipment and delivery trucks; the close proximity of the Lancaster Adult Day Health Care Center; the impact on water supplies; construction potentially releasing into the air a fungus that causes valley fever; and disturbance of habitat for animals and plants, including the desert tortoise. Finally, the appeal asserts a new environmental report is required because the older ones did not include impacts from a proposed nearby power plant by Summit Power Group, in Seattle. The plant has been approved by the California Energy Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “The cumulative impact of these projects will produce massive amounts of air pollution that will exacerbate the already unacceptable pollution levels in the region,” the appeal said. Dale Goldsmith, an L.A. attorney who handles CEQA cases, said that if the matter ends up in court it could be nine months to a year before getting to trial. Once at trial, the case would be more like one before an appellate court where the evidence comes from the administrative record and there is no discovery or depositions, said Goldsmith, a partner at Armbruster Goldsmith & Delvac. “There is no calling of witnesses; it’s all there in the record and you cannot bring in anything extra,” he added. Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said that he disagrees that a new EIR is needed, noting that the same environmental impact reports used for the Kinkisharyo project were used for the power plant project. “I still believe in the premise of that EIR and we still think it is relevant,” he said. Rival states The labor dispute has riled Antelope Valley economic boosters, who welcome the jobs from the Kinkisharyo plant, given a July unemployment rate of nearly 11 percent for Palmdale and more than 12 percent for neighboring Lancaster. Kimberly Maevers, president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance, said that she hopes the differences between the two sides can be worked out. “The stalling is a challenge to those of us who are trying to grow jobs,” Maevers said. The company could stay in California and move into an existing building, which would fall under less stringent CEQA regulations, said King, who is currently serving as chairman of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, a Sherman Oaks business advocacy group. But he noted that even finding the temporary space in the LAWA hangars was a two-year search. Another option would be to look elsewhere, perhaps Nevada, Arizona or Texas. While Kinkisharyo prefers to do its final assembly close to customers – the kind of work now being done at the temporary plant – it could do the more extensive assembly in another state. Indeed, the state’s strict environmental requirements were at play in the decision by Elon Musk when choosing where to locate a $5 billion battery factory for his Tesla Motors Inc. State lawmakers were willing to exempt Tesla from some CEQA regulations to speed construction of the factory, but the draft legislation did not get serious consideration before lawmakers adjourned. Musk then chose Nevada as the site. But Ledford said going outside the state could upset the company’s production timeline of completing the Metro rail cars as well as raise objections that the cars are being made for Metro in someplace other than California. “We are strongly encouraging them to stay in the region and preferably Los Angeles County,” he said.