NEWARK — On New Jersey’s map of diesel exhaust, most of the state is a peaceable blue, indicating a relatively low concentration of pollutants. But there’s a big angry red splotch, where diesel levels are 100 to 1,000 times the benchmark that’s considered safe for humans to breathe.
That splotch falls squarely over the Port of New York and New Jersey, the nation’s third-largest gateway for ocean-borne cargo. It also encompasses several low-income communities in Newark, Bayonne, and Elizabeth, where asthma is now a leading cause of absenteeism for school-age kids. More detailed maps show elevated cancer risk from air quality in census tracts closest to the port.
It’s not just Newark: There are similar red splotches over neighborhoods surrounding seaports across the nation. Living next to one of them is similar to living next to a coal plant, with all the exhaust from trucks, ships, rail yards and cranes — except the federal Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t regulated their cumulative emissions as tightly, in the way that it has recently targeted those gigantic single sources of air pollution with strict new limits on how much they can emit.
And the clock is ticking. The widening of the Panama Canal is expected to create an influx of super-large ships, and many U.S. ports are now beefing up their capacity to welcome them. So advocates are sending a message that new inventions — like hydrogen and electric-powered vehicles and machines — are needed to make sure the adjacent neighborhoods don’t suffer even more as freight volumes rise.
“We call these facilities diesel magnets,” says Angelo Logan, policy lead for a coalition of environment and community groups called the Moving Forward Network. “They need to be looked at in the same way that power plants are looked at, in the same way that an oil refinery is looked at.”
Currently, the EPA requires states to develop plans to bring broad areas into compliance with national air quality standards. But that might not mean the neighborhoods closest to the ports in particular reach those safe levels. That’s why Logan’s coalition wants the EPA to step in, requiring states to make and enforce specific plans for the tangle of businesses that transport goods in and out of the metropolitan area.
“We can grow and we can grow green, but what it requires is that EPA really push industry and the ports to move into zero emissions technologies,” Logan says. “There are many different governments and authorities, and EPA has a national reach.”
So far, they’ve got a petition aimed at EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and backed by advocacy groups such as Union of Concerned Scientists and Natural Resources Defense Council. A letter to McCarthy in late July laid out their specific requests, and has so far not received a response.
To the seniors who gather around folding tables a few times a week at the community center in Weequahic Park in Newark, living in a web of transportation infrastructure feels like being under attack. Some of them grew up there, others moved for cheaper housing, but all feel unable to escape.
“You’re constantly getting it, from above and below,” says Brenda Liggins, a small woman enveloped in a large white sweatshirt, talking about the trains that shake the ground as they rumble by, the planes that scream as they pass overhead.
“In order to get away from the fumes, you have to get out by 5 in the morning,” agrees Cora Moody, 66. “Before the air starts settling down.”
But the worst thing, for the Weequahic Park commentariat, is the trucks.
"These trucks stay on the whole day. All you hear is BRRRRRUHHGHGH,” imitates Everton Hammond, 59. The noise even reaches through the window of his high-rise right off Frelinghuysen Avenue, a main trucking thoroughfare; exhaust surrounds the seniors who sit on the benches outside. “It chokes you out. Sometimes you can barely breathe,” he says.
Then, someone wondered whether planes could even be dropping gasoline in the park, after noticing a strange illness on the park’s trees. They probably aren’t, but it seems like the kind of thing that might happen around the Port of Newark.
“They don’t know what is harming them,” says Kim Gaddy, a local organizer with Clean Water Action, who knows the park and its seniors well. “Today, it’s the trucks. Tomorrow, it could be something else.”
THE sprawling, fragmented complex that abuts Weequahic Park also happens to be one of the best illustrations of why it’s hard to get some ports to do much on their own.
For one thing, it’s difficult to tell who exactly is in charge of what. The Port Authority is governed by a board that’s split by appointees of the governors of both states, but some parts of the port sit on land owned by different municipalities. The marine terminal operators lease space from the Port Authority and manage cargo brought in by the shipping lines, paying fees to the trucking companies that haul containers away to rail yards or warehouses.
In 2009, the Port Authority convened all of those stakeholders to come up with a plan to reduce emissions, including voluntary steps like financial incentives for clean-burning ships. Since then, officials say, levels of toxins like nitrogen oxide and sulfur have declined, despite a small rise in traffic. The New York Shipping Association, which represents the businesses that run the port, says those voluntary programs are enough — its members have upgraded to cleaner cargo handling equipment (with the help of state subsidies). “Our members continue to back environmental goals for our port, actively live up to the commitments they have made and will continue to do so,” says spokeswoman Beverly Fedorko.
But that hasn’t had much of an impact on diesel emissions from trucks, which come the closest to where people live, and are now internationally recognized as a cause of lung cancer. The Port Authority’s plan says that all trucks with engines older than 2007 will be banned from the port starting in 2017, since the newer ones are much cleaner, but the path from A to B is far from clear. New trucks cost tens of thousands of dollars, and most port truckers are independent operators, running on razor-thin margins as it is — they likely won’t be able to finance the replacements in time.
“There’s no way we can get enough grant funding to replace all these trucks,” says Bill Nurthen, general manager of the port’s environmental programs. The federal Diesel Emissions Reduction Act could to help fund these kinds of projects, but Congress has given the program only 30 percent of the money authorized by the legislation. At the moment, the Port Authority has enough money to help replace 354 of the 6,302 pre-2007 trucks that come in and out on a regular basis.
"There’s no way we can get enough grant funding to replace all these trucks.”
— Bill Nurthen, general manager of PANYNJ's environmental programs
Faced with that reality, Nurthen says they’re considering pushing back the deadline. “If you stick with the phaseout plan, which would deny access to trucks with 2006 or older engines,” he says. “Imagine what that would do to the port’s ability to move cargo.”
Amy Goldsmith, a Moving Forward Network member who serves as the New Jersey director for Clean Water Action, says that’s exactly the problem. "There’s no mandate that the Port Authority upgrade,” Goldsmith says. “It’s completely voluntary, and they can throw it out in any board meeting they feel like.”
Instead, she wants the EPA to set much more ambitious targets that would force the adoption of next-generation technologies, rather than incremental upgrades. “I think history has shown that industry has never stepped up to do the right thing on its own,” Goldsmith says. “It’s always through a regulatory technique or a mandate to move the technology, and innovation. It’ll move faster if the EPA keeps its direction, rather than leaving everyone to wonder, where are we going to land?”
In response to the Moving Forward Network’s campaign, the EPA provided information about its efforts to help ports clean up. "EPA has a suite of programs and regulations that reduce emissions at ports, including engine standards, fuel requirements and voluntary programs to address emissions from port trucks, equipment and vessels,” EPA spokeswoman Christie St. Clair wrote in an e-mail, noting that further recommendations were due by year’s end.
ON the other side of the country, California shows that another way is possible.
Through the California Air Resources Board and other regional regulatory bodies, the Golden State has been much more aggressive in containing emissions at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s largest. To meet phase-out deadlines for older trucks, they levied a fee on loaded containers to raise $2 billion for grants and loan subsidies. Terminal operators have started to use more electric power in order to meet the goals of a clean air action plan, and even a machine that sucks smog out of the exhaust vents of barges and then filters out the toxic chemicals.
Equally important, however, is a change in the structure of the industries that serve the port. In the case of trucks, advocates think that larger companies would be better equipped to comply with new regulations themselves, rather than having the cost fall on cash-strapped owner operators.
That’s why this environmental story is also a labor story. One of the key members of the Moving Forward Network is the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has been battling for years to prove that those truck drivers have been illegally misclassified as independent contractors by the companies that dispatch them. The federal Department of Labor has prosecuted scores of such cases, and now the Teamsters are unionizing some companies whose drivers are newly classified as employees.
One of those is an L.A.-based company called EcoFlow, which is building a fleet of highly efficient trucks — even a few hydrogen and electric ones — and negotiating a contract with the Teamsters. The business case for that model depends on law enforcement making it more expensive to misclassify drivers, which in years past has been profitable and risk-free for trucking companies.
"There is an embedded cost that is not coming to the forefront, which is that the non-compliance part catches up to them in the form of fines and litigation,” says Jonathan Rosenthal, a private equity executive who leads EcoFlow’s board. “I think what will happen is that the industry will over time migrate to a largely employee model. But you have to assume that enforcement of existing regulations will be more rigorous.”
Gradually, the intense political and regulatory pressure in California has started to make a difference to the health of surrounding communities. “We know in L.A. kids’ lungs have gotten better as air pollution has dropped,” says Andrea Hricko, professor of clinical preventive medicine at the University of Southern California.
She’s supporting the campaign targeting EPA, though, because most local politicians — in places like New Orleans, New Jersey, Savannah, Galveston — haven’t supported the same level of regulation that’s possible in California. “It’s been harder for the ports here to get away with a lot than it has been in communities that don’t have the capacity to deal with this issue,” Hricko says.
“We’re still at the point where it’s accepted that there are diesel trucks in our neighborhoods. When there’s a technology available that controls it, why do we accept these risks for diesel exhaust?”
— Robert Laumbach, assistant professor at the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine
Meanwhile, researchers are still learning more about how diesel affects kids in Newark. Professor Robert Laumbach of Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine has been collecting data from particulate monitors that attach to kids’ backpacks. The results aren’t all in, but Laumbach hypothesizes that the chronic stress of poverty in neighborhoods surrounding the port might exacerbate the health effects of bad air quality, which he compares to the cigarette smoke that used to pervade public places.
"Back when I was a kid, growing up in the 1970s, my family would go out to restaurants, and there were no smoking restrictions. And then it became apparent that cigarette smoke makes cardiovascular disease worse, and causes cancer, even for people who don’t smoke,” Laumbach says. “We’re still at the point where it’s accepted that there are diesel trucks in our neighborhoods. When there’s a technology available that controls it, why do we accept these risks for diesel exhaust?”
To the kids in Newark, it’s not just the presence of the port itself — it’s the surrounding operations as well, like the trash incinerators, the scrap yards, the swirl of on-ramps and off ramps from four major highways. It’s especially bad in the summer, says Nyheim Carter, a gangly 14-year-old who lives in the Ironbound, a low-income neighborhood that gets the brunt of the emissions. "You might think aww, you farted! But no, it’s the air,” he says. “It stinks so much I don’t want to go outside.”
Carter and his friend Jefferson Diaz, 13, say they’ll move out as soon as they’re old enough, and certainly wouldn’t raise their own kids where they grew up. “I want to Iive in the rich areas,” Diaz says. “They don’t put the incinerators there.”