July 23, 2008 / 12:27 AM / 9 years ago

FEATURE-California ports' pollution plan proves a big haul

6 Min Read

By Nichola Groom

LOS ANGELES, July 23 (Reuters) - A short drive from the sandy beaches of Malibu rise two sprawling ports, where goods from around the world enter the United States before fanning out by road and rail to stores from coast to coast.

The adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the United States' biggest, see nearly half of the nation's container traffic and are key to insuring goods made in China make it to retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

But the ports hold another, less honorable distinction: They are the biggest polluters in Southern California.

Concerns about pollution-linked illnesses in local communities stalled port expansion projects for years before both ports in 2006 agreed to slash pollutants -- mainly exhaust from diesel engines -- to below 2001 levels in five years.

The ports are requiring cleaner vessel fuels, shoreside electricity so ships will not run their dirty diesel engines at berth, newer truck fleets and cleaner train locomotives. Much of the plan is funded by increased fees for customers.

"We were dead in the water, and we had to stick our neck out to do some things, so we did," Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Geraldine Knatz said in a recent interview.

The plan, however, is proving to be easier said than done.

Already, some shippers, truckers and others who don't want to make changes are choosing other ports, according to Knatz, who said port traffic could drop 10 percent to 15 percent.

Meanwhile, the trucking industry said it plans to sue over what it says is the ports' plan to micromanage its business, while the railroads say they can't comply with a 2014 deadline for new locomotives because the technology won't be available.

Also, retailers are balking at having to pay fees to fund the ports' clean trucks program while also investing in new trucks, according to the Retail Industry Leaders Association.


The ports say they haven't been surprised by the reactions to such a sweeping plan, and are digging in their heels.

"We knew going in if our plan was really good that we would upset everybody," said Port of Long Beach spokesman Art Wong.

Port officials say other major U.S. ports -- Oakland, Seattle, Newark, Houston -- will eventually follow Long Beach and Los Angeles' emissions reductions efforts.

To local residents, the 17,000 trucks that travel in and out of the ports are the most visible sources of pollution. Daily, they dominate the freeway that runs into the ports and through the outlying residential neighborhoods.

The ports themselves sprawl for miles down the Pacific coast, their massive ships and cranes dominating the horizon. It can take 15 minutes to find your way out of either port.

For the port industries, a major worry is having to comply with requirements that vary by location. The railroads, for instance, are in the midst of complying with a 2010 California state deadline to switch to cleaner locomotives, but the ports' plan would require newer technology a few years later.

"The railroads had just made a commitment to change... and then 'Oh, by the way change out your fleet again,'" said Kirk Marckwald director of the locomotive emissions reduction project for the Association of American Railroads. "That has horrific costs."

The most controversial portion of the ports' plan, so far, involves the move to ban pre-1989 trucks later this year. Trucks older than 2007 will be banned beginning in 2012. The trucking industry, which agrees on the need for cleaner trucks, says the ports are going too far by checking up on truckers' compliance with federal safety and security standards.

"You could have every port that deals with containers setting up this patchwork of what they believe is the best," said Curtis Whalen, executive director of the Intermodal Motor Carriers Conference of the American Trucking Association.

The ATA has threatened to sue over the issue.

Even the ports disagree on how to implement the truck program. Los Angeles has mandated that only trucking company employees will be allowed in the port, arguing that will make the program easier to implement and monitor. Long Beach will continue to allow independent truckers.


The ports are eager to begin work on years of stalled upgrades -- projects that will be critical to insuring the ports can handle twice their current volume by 2020.

The Port of Los Angeles in April got approval for its first expansion project in seven years after reaching a long-sought agreement with environmental and community groups. Long Beach, meanwhile, is now seeking approval for a decade-long project to upgrade two old, inefficient terminals.

Knatz said she hopes the Los Angeles port's efforts to address emissions will prevent future delays in expansion projects and bring millions of dollars to local contractors at a time when housing construction has stalled.

Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer David Pettit said he worries progress could be stalled by lawsuits, though even more emissions-control measures are around the corner. The ports are just beginning to look at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the primary contributors to global warming.

"That's going to be a much longer haul," Knatz said. (Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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