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

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Ports Of Los Angeles And Long Beach See Reduction In Toxins Amid Health Concerns

Reut Cohen |
May 20, 2011 | 3:03 p.m. PDT

Senior Editor

Port of Los Angeles (Photo by Reut Cohen)
Port of Los Angeles (Photo by Reut Cohen)
Donna Ethington remembers the putrid smells and diesel fumes that would waft into her Wilmington office near the Port of Los Angeles. The smell from the trucks and ships at the port was so bad she couldn’t keep the doors and windows open. Just five years later, Ethington is breathing easier.

“My office is right in this port—I’m there 24/7 unless I’m in a meeting somewhere. I can tell you that there has been a huge reduction in emissions,” said Ethington, a member of the Wilmington Neighborhood Council who has lived in the area for 32 years and campaigned for a cleaner environment.

Southern California’s ports have come under pressure from environmental and community groups in recent years over toxic emissions that are linked to cancer and respiratory diseases like asthma. The result is the ports have adopted greener ways of conducting business.

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have imposed stricter environmental rules on the thousands of trucks that transport containers each week and on the diesel-churning vessels that bring in cargo from abroad. Over the last four years the worst types of diesel emissions linked to cancer have fallen by more than 50 percent.

“They are moving in the right direction,” said Morgan Wyenn, project attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, in Santa Monica. “Other ports around the country are starting to copy what the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have done.”

But the ports have a long way to go.

The ports are a busy trade gateway with a crucial impact on the nation’s economy. More than 40 percent of cargo coming into the United States is transported through the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, making them the largest shipping complex in the country.

Southern California’s port complex has dwarfed its American rivals. It brings in more than double—even triple—the amount of cargo than other U.S. ports, but it also has been responsible for significantly more pollution.

Prior to 2004, the combined port was responsible for more than triple the amount of smog-contributing toxins than the Port of Virginia and triple the amount of cancer-causing emissions than ports in Houston and Seattle.

With the rise of container ships and a bustling industry, air pollution in Southern California grew to the highest rates but with very little action to curb the industry’s effects on communities and the environment.

It wasn’t until 2002 that the community, concerned about the impact the ports’ activities had on their health, decided to take action.

With support from the NRDC, other environmental groups and community organizations, and L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, a lawsuit was filed against the Port of Los Angeles that alleged that a $274-million terminal expansion project did not adhere to state environmental regulations and would adversely affect the community.

The legal action coincided with the growth of the green movement. Many shipping companies doing business with the ports today, such as China Shipping which has become one of the greenest companies, have successfully adapted to new regulations and technologies which include use of clean fuels, recycling and speed reduction of vessels.

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach go by the motto of “growing greener,” marking a new attitude toward environmental responsibility.

Tackling the problem was no easy task. The biggest problem was the container ships idling as they waited to be unloaded or loaded spewing out diesel fumes that would end up in the environment all over Southern California.

(Reut Cohen)
(Reut Cohen)
To minimize health and environmental risks, the ports began utilizing cleaner fuels, equipment, and changing overall practices. So far the ports have seen progress. Initiatives, like the Clean Truck Program, are credited with reducing diesel truck emissions by more than 80 percent.

In 2008 the ports banned the oldest trucks from entering the complex. By 2012 all trucks coming into the port will have to meet 2007 or better standards. The Port of Los Angeles aimed to reduce overall truck emissions by 80 percent by 2012, but reached that goal in 2010.

“We’re ahead of the curve here,” said Kevin Maggay, an official with the Port of Los Angeles’ Environmental Management Division.

Earlier this month the Port of Los Angeles said in a statement that carbon emissions have fallen for the fourth straight year despite increases in shipping. Samples taken at both Wilmington and San Pedro show a 10 percent drop in carbon compared to 2009. Today Southern California’s ports, which have historically contributed to pollution at greater rates than other ports in the U.S., are emitting far less toxins into the air than other ports in the country.

Other U.S. ports are beginning to emulate programs of Southern California’s ports. The ports in Virginia, Seattle and Houston are just a few to adopt the Clean Truck Program in an effort to tackle similar problems dealing with toxic air emissions.

However, environmentalists say they hope the ports will tackle the emissions from diesel-powered trains, and continue to look for ways to reduce emissions from container ships. “Pollution is still unacceptably high,” said Wyenn, who stressed the urgent need for the Port of Los Angeles to come up with a plan that would result in eliminating all toxic emissions. “They promised that back in 2006. Frankly, the community is sick of waiting.” The two million people who reside near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach remain at risk for greater health complications than those who live elsewhere in Southern California. Studies show that more than 21.9 percent of children living in communities close to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach suffer from asthma, which is linked to toxins released due to the ports’ activities. In contrast, the asthma rate for the whole of Los Angeles is at 15.6 percent.

The ports’ vessels and vehicles make up 12 percent of the region’s diesel particulate matter, which causes cancer. Port activities also account for 9 percent of nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog and 45 percent of sulfur oxides, which is linked to asthma and other respiratory ailments. For years the effects of pollution from the ports activities went unchecked.

Over the next two years 40 Wilmington-area schools are expected to receive air filters as part of a 2008 settlement negotiated by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Coalition for a Safe Environment and community groups. However, environmentalists say that the air filters can only do so much to minimize children’s exposure to toxins because they only clean the air within schools.

“[Children] can’t live in a bubble,” said Wyenn. “The ultimate goal is to get port emissions down overall.”

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach face economic realities as they continue to push for a reduction in emissions. There has been considerable opposition from truckers and shipping companies because of the high business costs associated with the changes.

But port officials say they are optimistic about the balance of increasing revenue and cargo shipping with plans to reduce pollution.

“We do have our environmental initiatives, but with the support of our tenets we feel like they’re on board with us. They realize the gravity of the problem here,” said Maggay. “We make our business by moving cargo and recognize the need for the balance there.”


Reach Reut Cohen here or follow her on Twitter.



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.