The big trucks roar out of Port Newark like a beastly herd, snorting, grinding gears and belching exhaust as they rush through the predominantly black South Ward neighborhood.
“In one hour, no matter when we count, we have about 400 trucks come through,” Kim Gaddy said.
The diesel trucks help move $1 billion worth of cargo annually in and out of Port Newark, a cornerstone of the nation’s third-largest port system — the Port of New York and New Jersey — and the source of tens of thousands of jobs. But the pollution exacts a heavy toll on residents, environmental advocates say.
And they fear it could get much worse.
The widening of the century-old Panama Canal will allow a new generation of gigantic cargo ships to slip between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans within two years.
Bigger ships mean more trucks hauling goods in and out of port communities — areas that studies have shown are disproportionately poor, have higher minority populations and a greater incidence of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Gaddy and her three children, ages 8 to 24, have asthma, as do thousands of other adults and children in Newark, where the asthma-related death rate is nearly twice that of the suburbs.
Environmentalists and residents say that particulate-matter pollution from trucks contributes to poor health in areas that have the fewest resources to fight it. Nationwide, African Americans and Latinos who live around ports are far more likely to breathe dirty air, according to a 2011 study by global research firm ICF International, published in the Journal of Public Health.
“You hear about the killings in Newark, but the heart attacks we die of in higher numbers are never talked about,” said Gaddy, an organizer for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “The pollution is killing us. We’re fighting for our lives.”
In Newark’s Ironbound community near the port, Miguel Duran, 33, has asthma, as do his children. His 13-year-old son said he sees the shimmering fumes of idling trucks. He watched the trucks go by Hawkins Elementary School in Ironbound when he was a student there, playing on the recreation field, inhaler in his pocket.
The $5.25 billion project to widen the canal — started in 2007 and expected to be finished in 2015 — has touched off a race among ports along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico eager to attract the world’s largest container ships and their enormous cargo. They are investing billions of dollars to deepen their harbors and expand their operations.
Only a handful of the 360 ports in the United States can handle the biggest cargo ships, and only two, Baltimore and Norfolk, are in the east. Many of the super-ships carry cargo from Asia and use West Coast ports.
Residents and environmentalists in the South Ward and Ironbound are fighting a proposal to make way for the big ships and increase truck traffic at Port Newark: raising the nearby Bayonne Bridge from 150 feet to 215 feet so towering stacks of cargo can pass beneath it.
The bridge-raising plan is supported by Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), who called the port system an economic engine that drives the region.
Booker argues that pollution will probably decrease, because the new ships will be more fuel efficient and a program will help truck drivers buy more fuel-efficient rigs and get rid of older models.
That same argument is echoed by other officials. A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Christopher Valens, said raising the Bayonne Bridge will lead to only “a nominal change” in the number of trucks that load at the port every year.
But the Environmental Protection Agency has its doubts.
“We believe that changes in cargo movement associated with the project could result in some change in community impacts, particularly related to port traffic and air quality,” John Filippelli, director of the clean air and sustainability division for EPA’s Region 2, wrote in a March letter to the Coast Guard commander.
Last week, the port authority entered into an agreement with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection that could pave the way to raising the bridge. The department said it would monitor the port to determine if there’s an increase in trucks and a decrease in air quality.
But environmental advocates say the department should not have entered into an agreement without requiring an environmental impact study of air quality, and they said they are considering legal action to stop work on the bridge.
Environmental justice advocates nationwide want officials to reduce the number of trucks at ports and want environmental impact studies conducted to help determine if more port activity increases pollution.
The calls are especially strong in Los Angeles. A bid by the Los Angeles Harbor Commission to move forward with the Southern California International Gateway , a half-billion-dollar rail expansion at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, drew a rebuke from Long Beach Mayor Robert Foster (D).
After construction, truck trips are expected to increase from 500 to more than 8,000 daily, Foster said, but the commission insists that replacing older trucks will keep pollution from increasing.
“I want them to create a health and community benefits fund to upgrade windows and filtration system so people can live in their homes,” Foster said in a recent interview. “These are my residents. Their health is not being treated fairly.”
The Port of Baltimore ranks ninth among U.S. ports, with a value of more than $51 billion. It produces more than 40,000 jobs, according to a 2010 report prepared for the Maryland Port Administration. It generates about $300 million in taxes.
The port administration is adding muscle to the Seagirt Marine Terminal to keep supplier firms from going to New Jersey or Norfolk, a large naval port that can handle bigger ships. Workers are dredging a canal to a 50-foot depth to handle ships nearly three times the size of vessels that currently use the Chesapeake Bay.
Baltimore’s work has moved forward for about two years without a challenge.
But on the outskirts of Baltimore, Gloria Nelson, vice president of the Turner Station Conservation Team, said residents are concerned about where toxic dirt dredged at the Port of Baltimore will be dumped, as well as the contamination of the area’s soil with chromium, a carcinogen.
“When projects come about, they seem to land on our side of the county,” Nelson said.