warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

A Year Later, L.A.'s Ports Continue Struggling With Clean Air Violators

Madeleine Scinto |
January 3, 2011 | 8:05 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Truck companies skirt Clean Truck Program rules by sending new trucks to pick up cargo at the port, while their older trucks haul the loads along L.A. freeways. (Madeline Scinto)
Truck companies skirt Clean Truck Program rules by sending new trucks to pick up cargo at the port, while their older trucks haul the loads along L.A. freeways. (Madeline Scinto)
A year after Neon Tommy first reported trucking companies are making an end-run around stricter clean air rules, Port of Los Angeles officials addressed the Harbor Commission at a meeting about its own investigation into the problem.

Under the end-run practice, a clean truck takes cargo a short distance outside port gates where it meets an older, dirtier truck that transports the load to its final destination.

Last month the California Air Resources Board, the state’s regulatory emissions agency, voted to outlaw these clean-to-dirty swaps, but it could take up to a year for the statute to take effect. Port of L.A. officials started an investigation in 2009 into the polluting practice by sending letters each month to companies whose trucks entered the ports at least 10 times during a 24-hour period.

Officials demanded an explanation as to why the trucks made so many trips. Twenty-two companies, a small fraction of the hundreds operating at the port, received those letters during one month.

In response to the Port of L.A’s inquiry, Rosemarie Bustos, who works for her husband’s company Bustos Trucking wrote in an email, “…we have clean trucks turn in loads from our yard in Wilmington for drivers that do not have their clean trucks yet.”

Their small business cannot afford the new fleet, she told Neon Tommy. Each rig costs at least $100,000, and that’s not including the pricey maintenance costs of the newer models.

“My husband and I were just penciling it out the other day, and we’re barely breaking even,” said Bustos. 

Ernesto Navarez, who spoke at the Dec. 2 Harbor Commission meeting and owns his own trucking company, said, “A new truck is about three times as expensive per mile to operate as an old truck.” 

New trucks require $1,500 air filters and new sensors every 200,000 miles.

The Harbor Commissioners did not sympathize with companies engaged in truck swapping to avoid these new expenses.  

“This is just a way to skirt around the standards we’re talking about,” said Commissioner David Arian. 

In October 2008 the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach, both located at the San Pedro Bay, started the Clean Truck Program to cleanse the ports and surrounding communities of polluting trucks by banning them in a phased process.

Emissions from the older trucks pose health hazards that include an increased risk of cancer and asthma, contributing to the San Pedro Bay’s nickname as the “diesel death zone.”

A Neon Tommy investigation found truck companies skirt Clean Truck Program rules by sending new trucks to pick up cargo at the port, while their older trucks haul the loads through nearby neighborhoods and along L.A. freeways.

“That’s how people are holding on. They have to be because do you really think all these small companies can afford new trucks?” said George Diaz, owner of JD & LA Trucking, who received one of the Port of L.A.’s letters last February, but said the port wrongly cited him.

Cargo exchange from new to old truck goes on all around his Wilmington yard, located a mile from the port on the intersection of Alameda and Quail, Diaz said.

Similar operations also take place in Compton and the Lynwood area, said Navarez. The locations provide the trucking companies with cheap rent and good freeway access to the port.

“These [truck swaps] are a serious problem that undermine the effort to curb air pollution,” said Morgan Wyenn, an attorney who specializes in port issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

Measuring the extent of these cargo exchanges proves difficult, however, unless the cargo is tracked from the port all the way to its final destination. A clean truck could be giving cargo to an old truck even after making only one port entrance, acknowledged Chris Cannon, director of environmental management at the Port of L.A.

And for those trucks entering the port multiple times a day, they might have legitimate reasons to do so.

“There’s a sulfur company right next to us in Wilmington and we were moving their stuff to the port to be exported,” said Pete Wilson, president of the trucking company Fast Lane Transportation, in response to one of the Port of L.A.’s investigation letters.

Some trucks also make a lot of port entries because they run 24 hours a day, with daytime and nighttime drivers.  Other companies stick to transporting empty containers, avoiding long loading lines and paving the way for fast turnarounds.

While many trucking companies comply with the spirit of the Clean Truck Program, other companies switch their cargo from a new to old truck right on port property.

“We have investigated this as much as we can and we fenced [that area] off,” said Capt. John Holmes, deputy executive director of operations at the Port of L.A., when addressing the Harbor Commission.

Port officials refused to tell Neon Tommy which companies they found swapping containers on port property or how long the operation had been going on there.

Holmes told the Harbor Commission the port called the companies involved to reprimand them for violating the spirit of the Clean Truck Program.

Next door at the Port of Long Beach, officials started their own investigation.

“We know since the Clean Truck Program started there have been some changes to the way trucks operate,” said Heather Tomley, assistant director of environmental planning at the Port of Long Beach.

In response to the changes a few years ago Long Beach launched its Origin Destination Study, which surveys truck movement from port terminals to Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange Counties.

“We’re trying to find out about these secondary trips. There isn’t a lot of information,” said Annie Nam of Southern California Association of Government, the organization working with the Port of Long Beach on the study.

Long Beach officials refused to give Neon Tommy a copy of the survey and said the report will be completed in 18 months.

“But if the ports or county or city or state don’t stop these trucks then what’s the point?,” asked Jose Cardenas, owner of Lincoln Transportation, whose fleet is now 75 percent clean, in response to the port investigations.

Right now the clean-to-dirty-rig exchange violates the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law.  Port officials can penalize companies that exchange cargo on public property, but it’s considered a land-use violation and incurs a nominal fee.

“It’s one of those things where it’s easier to pay the ticket than it is to pay the fee for the parking,” said Holmes.

When CARB’s new statute takes effect, it will crack down on the truck swapping practice by slapping violators with $1,000 fines.

 “It’ll probably be passed into law around the summer time,” said Mike Sutherland, CARB project manager, over the phone from his Sacramento office.

“How are they going to enforce that?” asked Bustos of Bustos Trucking, in response to CARB’s proposed regulations. “I mean, what are they going to do? It seems impossible.” 

CARB, along with the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, plan to take calls from people who suspect certain companies are skirting the Clean Truck Program.

“Those that follow the rules get upset their competition isn’t playing fair,” said Sutherland. “So it will be a complaint-driven system.”

The new statute will require drivers to carry identification information, like delivery receipts, that show their cargo’s starting point and intended destination.  When enforcement officers respond to the scene, they can verify if the cargo comes from the port and whether a clean truck is towing it.

“If in fact we do use the clean trucks from the Port of L.A all the way to the Riverside warehouses -- those clean trucks actually get out on the roadways…5, 10, 15 miles from the port -- then the air quality across the basin can really start to get clean,” said Dr. Ed Avol, who specializes in preventative medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine.

Until then L.A. residents breathing dirty skies will have to wait and see if all companies can afford to follow the rules or will continue driving right around them.


Reach reporter Madeleine Scinto here





Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.