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California Fights Filth of Its Ports

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, left, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said California and Britain had reached an agreement on global warming.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, left, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said California and Britain had reached an agreement on global warming. (By David Mcnew -- Getty Images)

"The L.A. ports are like a toxic Superfund site when it comes to the public health threat," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a D.C.-based environmental group. "It is one of the single largest sources of pollution in all of Southern California."

The most difficult part of the equation, port officials estimate, will be cleaning up the tens of thousands of trucks that ply the port every day. They alone are believed responsible for 40 percent of the nitrogen oxide pollution and 31 percent of the particulate matter emissions from the ports. Most of the trucks are older, dirtier short-haul vehicles that travel between the port and the hundreds of distribution centers that line the region's highways. Persuading drivers to switch to cleaner, newer vehicles will be an expensive proposition, even if much of the job is subsidized by the ports themselves, said Thomas Jelenic, an environmental specialist at the Long Beach port.

Heather Tomley, another Long Beach port official, said: "We want to get a huge turnover from these trucks in a short period of time. But we are still working out how to pay for it."

Other aspects of the plan have shippers worried. For one, they said some of the technology being touted -- including a scrubber that can be attached to a ship's smokestack -- is still in the planning stage. Secondly, some of the plan's goals appear unrealistic. For example, Long Beach wants to force ships to go "cold iron" -- a Navy term for using electricity instead of burning diesel while dockside. But the port lacks the infrastructure to support large-scale electrification.

"We see multiple government jurisdictions moving forward with proposals that often conflict with one another, so when you're engaged in international and interstate commerce it often becomes difficult to figure out who's on first," said John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.

Shippers have also questioned the tactics for forcing change. Under the proposed plan, each time shippers request upgrades in their terminals, the ports will demand that they improve the environment in return. "The lease will be our primary mechanism to force change," Jelenic said. Already two shipping lines have accepted revised leases that require their vessels to go cold iron, he said.

But McLaurin said that requirement may prompt shippers to leave the L.A.-Long Beach area and look for less green harbors in Mexico and Canada.

That prospect does not bother port commission chief Freeman.

"All the ports up and down the West Coast realize that green is the only way to go. They are beginning to change, too. And if people want to move to Mexico, that's fine with me," he said. "Sooner or later, though, they'll be back. They want access to the U.S. market, they're ultimately going to have to come through us. We're the biggest on the block."

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