Ports Look To Clean Up Their Acts
Against a muted, orange morning skyline, colossal cargo ships pull into the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. They're carrying containers full of Nike sneakers, stereo systems and plastic toy dolls.
Monstrous 18-wheel trucks are loaded with the goods, which are destined for stores like Walmart or Target. The trucks travel miles to deliver these products directly to regional outlets or to the rail yards; from there they are distributed across the country by train.
While the engines of capitalism grind away, every ship, truck and train belches out enormous clouds of soot and diesel emissions. With more than 6 million cars on the road in Los Angeles alone, the poor air quality in Southern California isn't news.
But most residents may not know that the biggest contributors to air pollution offenders are the ports and, more specifically, the diesel trucks that drive thousands of miles to and from two of this country's busiest ports (Los Angeles is the leading container port in the country and Long Beach follows second).
"The ports are a serious air pollution problem, and diesel is the last dangerous pollutant," said Dr. Arthur Winer, a professor of Environmental Health Science at the UCLA School of Public Health.
The ports account for more than 20 percent of the toxic air emissions in the Los Angeles and Long Beach areas (also known as the South Coast Air Basin). They generate more smog and particulate-forming nitrogen oxide emissions than all the cars in the region, according the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Jointly, these cities have created the Clean Trucks Program to curb the amount of emissions by 80 percent by 2012 in the Los Angeles area, as well as around the port areas, which are home to residents of the San Pedro neighborhood of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Ultimately, the ports aim to clean up the air and reduce the hazardous health effects associated with breathing in this pollution. The question is, will it be soon enough? While bans on trucks will be enforced, delays could prevent the emissions goals from being reached.
"The ports worked together and then consulted with the California Air Resource Board and the South Coast Air Management District to determine what standard made sense and what things were required to accomplish this objective," said Chris Cannon, the Clean Truck Program director at the Port of Los Angeles. "In other words, can this really work over this time period, and what things need to happen for it to work."
A 2008 study by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) focused on the carcinogenic risk from exposure to air toxins in the greater L.A. and Long Beach areas. The AQMD is the air pollution control agency for all of Orange County and the urban portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The study produced an online map showing the estimated risk levels every hour, with the highest risk levels consistently in and around the port areas.
The polluted air has been shown to harm residents as well as port employees. Asthma rates among children living in neighborhoods within the vicinity of the ports are double the national average, according to U.S. Census figures and local studies. Dockworkers and truck drivers also face significantly elevated risks of lung and throat cancer.
There is also an economic cost. Studies by the AQMD and the California Air Resources Board, another governmental agency for clean air, estimated the economic impact of premature deaths due to port pollution will reach $5.9 billion by 2025.
Launched on October 1, 2008, the Clean Trucks Program bans all trucks built before 1989, the first year of diesel pollution control, from entering the port terminals. The exception is a small number of companies that have applied for a subsidy for a new truck. These trucks companies were granted a grace period because the grant process has been slow, according to Gill Hicks, the Clean Trucks Program director at Long Beach.
Thereafter, the program increases restrictions over a five-year period, gradually phasing in truck bans. In January 2010, all pre-2004 trucks will be banned. The program will culminate in January 2012 when truckers will only be allowed to operate a truck in the ports' terminals if it is 2007 emission-compliant or better.
Some 40,000 trucks enter and exit these two ports areas over the course of a year. Slightly less than half of them are known as frequent flyers, those that drive in and out of the terminals at least once every other day. Some of them come several times each day, according to Cannon.
"Those are the real ones that we want to focus our attention on because they're the ones going all the time and generating emissions going back and forth making short trips," Cannon said. "Well over 50 percent of the trips made by trucks in our port terminals are less than a 25-mile radius. It's those short-trip trucks that create the lion's share of emissions."
The program's ambitious goals that have been met with skepticism and resistance from various groups. Both ports have already run into problems since the program's introduction.
One of the main hurdles facing the ports includes the new electronic monitoring system, which tracks the trucks entering the port. Trucking companies or individual owners are required to register their vehicles with the ports. This information (including the year of the trucks) is amassed in a database, which is provided to the port terminals.
Each truck is then outfitted with a Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID) as a means of identification. As a trucker drives through the terminal gate, it is pinged as the system reads the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which tells the terminal the year the truck was built.
The system was being tested in mid-November and was supposed be ready by November 17, 2008. However, both ports have faced technical difficulties, including defective batteries in the tags, and Cannon has admitted that there will probably be additional delays. The electronic access is now set to start February 19, Hicks said.
Another facet of the Clean Trucks Program is the container fees. These container or clean truck fees are charged according to cargo. Each container that a trucker moves is charged $70. The money primarily goes toward grants, loans and subsidized leases that help truckers and companies purchase new, cleaner trucks. The fees were scheduled to begin on November 17, 2008 but have yet to be implemented.
"We have these 17,000 frequent flyers who we are focusing on and we realized that hardly any of them are 2007 compliant," Cannon said. "So basically all of them have to be replaced, and it's a lot of money."
A clean truck cost starts at about $100,000 and alternative fuel trucks can cost twice that amount. To upgrade a truck is about $20,000 to $50,000, depending on the truck's engine and vehicle age. The Clean Truck Program is projected to raise $2.2 billion from the state but primarily from these container fees.
The point of contention lies with determining who will be responsible for paying the fees: the trucker, the trucking company, the vendors or third parties.
At the Port of Long Beach, the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) was not allowing it to begin collecting the fees collection because it felt held that some of the fees were anticompetitive and discriminatory, according to Hicks. Both ports will be collecting fees February 18, as stated on the Port of Los Angeles Web site.
"Some parties will have to pay the fees and others won't," Hicks said. "But the reason for the fee revenue is to provide new trucks."
Hicks added that a slower turnover of the truck fleet could prevent the improvement of air quality, and possibly meeting the emissions goals.
"If we don't have the money to help subsidize new trucks, it will be left up to private companies to buy new trucks in order to meet expectations," Hicks said. "Many don't have the money to buy new trucks, so without the subsidies to help them, the number of clean trucks in service will be impacted."
One of the parties that may end up paying this fee are companies like Nike or Walmart, known as Beneficial Cover Owners (BCO).
"Here's the trick, the BCOs didn't get rich by being stupid - what they're saying is 'we're not paying the fees,'" Cannon said.
If the trucking company does not have 2007-compliant trucks, some of the BCOs leave it up to the trucking companies to take on the $70 per container or purchase new trucks.
"The trucking company has the least amount of bargaining power in the process," Cannon said. "It's really hard to bargain with Walmart. Walmart says you will do and the trucking company either says thank you or Walmart says fine and goes on to the next company."
The good news is that the bigger companies are stepping up.
"They realize that they have to do this because they figure it's coming," Cannon said. "It's starting here, but it's going to be in Oakland soon, it's going to be in Seattle, Houston, Philadelphia, Miami. So they'll step up and some of them have even called their favorite trucking companies and made a deal with them by buying them some trucks."
However, slightly smaller BCOs face a tougher situation. If the BCO cannot afford to pay to the fee, they will bypass trucking companies that have very few or no clean trucks for ones that do in order to avoid paying the fee. The trucking companies that don't have the right equipment will then suffer.
"You may have had 20 of the old trucks, but you can only afford the new ones a couple at a time and it's harder," Cannon said. "That's been a challenge for the trucking companies because to retain their business, they have to get all new trucks and they have to get them right away and some of them can't afford to do that."
The trucking company or trucker will have to eventually purchase new trucks, but probably won't ever have to pay the container fee, according to Hicks. Usually there is a freight forwarder or third party logistics manager that arranges the shipment of the cargo that can pay the fee on behalf of the shipper. This third party then attempts to get the money back from the importers or exporters.
To ensure that the program makes headway as quickly as possible, both ports are providing incentives to those who will need to purchase new trucks and avoid container fees.
In Long Beach, if a trucking company purchased a privately financed clean truck by October 1 of this year, it is fully exempted from paying the container fee.
The Port of Los Angeles will give truckers or trucking companies $5,000 for scrapping their pre-1989 trucks and more money for newer trucks.
"To use our grant program you got to give us your old trucks and we scrap them, and then we help fund a new truck," Cannon said. "When they scrap a truck, it's good for us because that truck is gone and its emissions are gone and it's good for them because they get a new truck."
Another issue that has cropped up concerns independent truckers. The Port of Los Angeles is mandating that truckers be employed by a company while Long Beach is allowing independent truckers.
"Los Angeles is doing this and admittedly it's extremely controversial," Cannon said. "Long Beach says ports legally cannot force employees. As much as you would like to do that, can a port force you to hire someone? Who are you to do that, what law gives you that right?"
The American Trucking Association (ATA), which represents 37,000 trucking companies, filed litigation in Federal District Court in September. Its case, largely focused on the employee requirement, claimed that the Port of Los Angeles has no right to ask for more than what is required by federal law.
A trucker must operate his or her truck in accordance with the law, which includes keeping the truck maintained and complying with security regulations. But the ATA objected that the employee requirement makes its anticompetitive for other trucking companies and it violates the interstate commerce law.
"They say the employee thing is ridiculous," Cannon said. "What does it have to do with emission regulations and safety and security?"
The ATA requested an injunction to get a hearing more quickly. But Judge Christina Snyder
denied the injunction, determining that it was not an imminent problem and that independent truckers could choose to do business elsewhere.
"She sounded like she was sympathetic to the ATA's claims and did write an opinion that sounded like it supported the ATA's position for all of these things with the exception of safety and security," Cannon said. "The judge did say the ports do have a right to do something to protect us from bombs being blown up on ships."
The ATA's hearing on the merits will be heard early next year.
"With the ambitions and goals for the program and with already a large number of components to be tested in the courts, it could cut into the 80 percent and stall the program," said Tom O'Brien, a professor at Cal State Long Beach and the program director at the Center for International Trade and Transportation.
The two ports diverged on this particular policy, influenced by the two cities' political agendas.
"It was decided by the Mayor of Long Beach, Bob Foster, that it's important for firms to decide how to organize themselves," Hicks said. "On the Los Angeles side, there is an interest by unions to organize the work. With independent operators, they can't do that."
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office did not specifically comment on the program's employee requirement.
"This is a first-in-the-world program and it is understandable that the FMC would want to know more, and over the next year, we will continue to cooperate with the FMC, as we always have," said Jared Irmas, a press aide for the Mayor. "But there is no legal reason that would prohibit us from moving forward."
Cannon argues the employee requirement is more efficient and ultimately the port will end up with a stronger business model.
"Having coordinated efforts like that, it's almost hard to do that with independents," Cannon said. "When you own the trucks, you can maintain them better, you have to make sure they don't get into accidents, you have to make sure the drivers aren't sitting around, so you have to come up with a dispatch system to make sure they are efficient, that they're always working. It's in your interest."
But the efficiency of operations is theoretical and "it's not really clear technically whether the truck firms are more efficient when run with an employee-based policy," Hicks said.
"They say the employee thing is ridiculous," Cannon said. "What does it have to do with emission regulations and safety and security?"
"Dray off" is another problem at the ports: it's a way for companies or truckers to avoid buying new trucks. Truckers use a clean truck to enter a port terminal and pick up containers. After exiting, they transfer the cargo to an old, dirty truck.
"There might be some temptation to do this, but it is more expensive with the extra handling," Hicks said. "With possibly two drivers instead of one, chances are, the truck company will charge a fee for both trips. The cost to the shipper is greater, so the amount of dray offs will probably be limited."
But there is no mechanism to monitor this from happening and the ports cannot tell truckers or companies that they aren't allowed to do this, according to Hicks.
"There is no way to restrict that but it will be limited because of the economics of the situation," Hicks added.
Beyond the policies, the every day people involved in and affected by the program are applauding the efforts made by the ports, even in the face of mounting delays.
"Most of the truckers say that they support this idea," Cannon said. "They believe clean air is good. They are happy."
Those in the communities surrounding the ports are also on board with the program, pointing to the health benefits as their number one priority.
"The ports have to realize that their products have to consider the health and welfare of the people involved," said Jerry Gaines, Vice President of the South Shores Homeowners Association. "They need to be part of the solution, but also factor in the cost of business. It's not rocket science. I'm optimistic, but obviously no one denies that this won't happen in a snap of a finger."
Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) is working with environmental and community groups in an effort called the Clean and Safe Ports Campaign. It aims to dramatically improve working conditions for truckers who service the ports as well as the air quality for residents in the port communities.
"People are getting anxious with all the delays but they're just defending their homes and where they live," said Alberto Ramirez, a community organizer for LAANE. "They are fed up with the pollution and see this as a viable option and are sticking with it."
The practical challenges the ports will face for the next few months are lessons learned for the future of the Clean Truck Program in Los Angeles and Long Beach, as well as for the rest for the country.
"The Port of Seattle is looking to implement a similar Clean Trucks Program and the Port of Oakland has a lot of public pressure to do something like this program as well," Hicks said. "These ports will look at Los Angeles' and Long Beach's programs to see how to do it or how to get in trouble. We've learned that we will have to work more closely with the FMC in the early stages to avoid the delays we are encountering now."
For others, the reality of dealing with these logistical issues will be a long road ahead and the program's success relies on the details.
"The key to the whole program is these container fees," Winer said. "They will generate a lot of money and it's reasonable to have them because these communities are seeing 44 percent of all goods entering America come through there."