California Fights Filth of Its Ports

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- In the first effort of its kind in the nation, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are about to launch a $2 billion campaign to clean up the ships, trucks, cranes and locomotives that ply and pollute the waterfronts in country's busiest ports.

The two ports are among the biggest polluters in a region known for some of the nation's dirtiest air. Federal officials say that unless something is done, the pollution at those ports and many others across the nation will drastically worsen. The Environmental Protection Agency is predicting that by 2030, smog-causing nitrogen oxide emissions and particulate matter from ships and other commercial vessels will have doubled their current levels.

The California proposal, expected to be formally adopted next month, aims to reduce particulate matter by 81 percent and nitrogen oxides by 62 percent in five years. The plan includes a program costing several hundred million dollars to replace or retrofit the 16,300 trucks that service the ports on a regular basis and an aggressive attempt to force international shipping companies to switch to cleaner fuels, slow down as they enter the harbor and retrofit their ships so that they can be powered by electricity when unloading.

Environmentalists and government officials say the cleanup program underscores that, while California may have lost national prominence in areas including education, prison reform and transportation infrastructure, it remains the leader in environmental issues. They said that leadership was on display earlier this week when British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the Long Beach port and met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and leading industrialists to discuss joint efforts to reduce global warming.

"California historically has been the laboratory from which others learn," said Bill Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators. "It started regulating cars in the 1960s. Now while the rest of the country is sitting idly by, its ports are taking appropriate steps as well."

Combined, the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports are the biggest in the nation and among the top five in the world, occupying more than 60 miles of waterfront along the dirty waters of San Pedro Bay. The places are vast, dotted with mountains of 40-foot cargo containers, gangly 300-foot tall cranes, oceangoing ships, and warehouses stretching into the Southern California smog. Each year, more than 40 percent of all containerized trade in the nation -- valued at more than $300 billion -- flows through these ports, filling Wal-Marts and other big-box stores across the land. An engine to Southern California's growth, the ports generate more jobs -- 500,000 -- than Hollywood's movie industry. The longshoremen who work the ports have some of the highest-paying blue-collar jobs in the nation, averaging more than $120,000 a year.

In recent years, as trade with Asia, especially China, has boomed, so has activity in the ports. In 1990, the two ports handled the equivalent of 3 million 20-foot containers. This year, they will process more than 16 million, according to Art Wong, a spokesman for the Long Beach facility. S. David Freeman, chairman of the powerful Los Angeles Harbor Commission, estimated that traffic will double by 2020.

The problem, Freeman said in an interview, is that if the ports hope to handle that increased cargo, they will have to grow. But each time the ports -- located in a region that is home to more than 14 million people with no shortage of active environmental and neighborhood associations -- have put forward a plan to grow, they are sued. And increasingly they lose.

In 2001, for example, a lawsuit by the National Resources Defense Council blocked the Los Angeles port from constructing a 174-acre terminal for the China Shipping Holding Co. because the port did not conduct an environmental impact study. The resulting judgment forced the port to conduct the study and pay $50 million in environmental mitigation measures.

"We realized it was either clean up the air or lose business," Freeman said in an interview. "The time for yakking is over. The only way we're going to remain competitive is by growing and cleaning up the air at the same time."

Another problem was that for decades, the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports barely talked. They were intense competitors, and the commissions that run the ports had not held a joint session since 1929. But that situation began to change with the election of Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles in 2005. Villaraigosa appointed Freeman to head the L.A. port, and the 80-year-old tough-talking former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority set about improving ties with Long Beach. Freeman hired the former No. 2 official of the Long Beach port, Geraldine Knatz, as executive director. Knatz has been a "genius," Freeman said, in improving ties.

Still, the job of cleaning up the ports will be daunting, Freeman said. In the Los Angeles area, oceangoing ships, harbor tugs and commercial boats regularly emit many times more smog-forming pollutants than all the power plants in the region. On a daily basis, the Los Angeles port spews more nitrogen oxide, 32 tons, and more particulate matter, 1.8 tons, than half a million cars, a typical refinery and power plant combined.

"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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