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LA, Long Beach ports approve plan to cut air pollution

Port of Los Angeles.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the busiest in the country. They are also the largest source of pollution in the South Coast.

The leadership of the busiest ports in the country have passed a $14 billion to clean up air pollution and fight climate change. 

After a marathon meeting on Thursday, the Harbor Commissioners of Los Angeles and Long Beach voted unanimously to approve the Clean Air Action Plan, which would clamp down on diesel exhaust, smog-forming chemicals, and greenhouse gas emissions from trucks, ships, cargo handling and other equipment at the ports, which are the largest source of air pollution in Southern California. 

Many commissioners acknowledged it was an extremely difficult issue, pitting economic competitiveness against public health and the responsibility to act on climate change.

“If you didn’t graduate college, the best chance in Southern California to have a dignified job and take care of your family is in the logistics industry,” said L.A. Harbor Commissioner Edward Renwick. “And at the same time, we cannot allow our children’s lungs to subsidize the cost of those jobs. It is a brutally difficult balancing act.”

The plan's high price tag will largely be born by private industry and business with assistance from government incentives. 

The plan sets a goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030. To get there, it targets each type of equipment in the ports for emissions reductions.

How will they do it?

By targeting each kind of equipment in the ports.

Trucks will transition to 100 percent battery electric or other zero-emission technology by 2035. Beginning in 2020, trucks that do not meet the latest state emissions standards will pay a fee. Currently, the only commercially-available truck that can meet the standard is powered by natural gas, and the ports expect thousands of natural gas trucks at the ports in the next decade (currently less than five percent of the 16,000 port trucks run on natural gas, the rest are diesel). But by 2035, only trucks powered by electricity, hydrogen or some other zero-emission technology will be exempt from the fee.

Beginning in 2020, all new cranes and cargo-handling equipment must be electric or natural-gas powered, with a goal of replacing the entire fleet by 2030. Currently only nine percent run on electricity.

Tugboat, crewboat and other harbor craft operators will be encouraged to upgrade to cleaner technology.

The dirtiest container ships will be charged a fee to encourage shippers to bring their cleanest vessels to the ports. The plan also calls for 100 percent of ships to plug in to the electric grid while in the port, instead of running their engines.

How much will all of this cost?

Between $7 and $14 billion – three to five times more than previous plans.

Where will the money come from?

The ports aren’t sure yet. They acknowledge the expenditures “will place an enormous financial burden” on the industry and on themselves.

In the next few years, the ports expect to shell out some $400 million of their own money to upgrade electrical and natural gas fueling infrastructure so that electric trucks and cargo-moving equipment have places to plug in and re-fuel. They may pass the costs onto the marine terminal operators.

Trucking companies and independent owner-operators will be expected to purchase the new, clean trucks themselves. There may be state incentives to help them with the costs, which range from $3-8 billion. Under the previous Clean Truck Program, companies purchased trucks on behalf of self-employed drivers who did not have the credit to purchase the trucks themselves, and deducted lease payments from their paychecks. Drivers have complained that these leasing practices were exploitative, and asked the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach to intervene, but the ports are staying out of it.

Terminal operators are also expected to spend their own money, up to $2 billion, to upgrade their equipment to the latest zero or near-zero emission technology. At the behest of labor unions like the ILWU, which represents longshoremen, no state incentives may be used towards green, automated equipment.

What’s been the response to the plan?

Although the plan has been in the works for two years, many people at the packed public meeting in San Pedro Thursday were still unhappy with the final version and asked the Harbor Commissioners for substantive last-minute changes.

“We have achieved our goal of antagonizing all of you equally,” joked Renwick.

Regional and state air regulators urged the ports to be more specific about their clean air goals. The ports set specific goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but do not for other pollutants like smog-forming nitrogen oxide. Instead, they assume the other sources of pollution will drop as diesel engines are phased out of the ports.

But the air plan also does not offer any enforceable targets for how quickly diesel trucks will be replaced beyond a goal of having 100 percent of trucks be powered by zero-emission engines by 2035.

Joseph Lyou, a board member at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, urged the Harbor Commissioners to reconsider their plan and make adjustments.

“Sometimes you need to make changes,” he said, “You have to do that.”

The natural gas industry, meanwhile, encouraged the Harbor Commissioners to speed the adoption of natural gas trucks by moving up a 2020 deadline when the ports will begin charging the dirtiest trucks a fee to enter the ports to pick up a container -- a move that will encourage those drivers to ditch them for cleaner rigs.

Vivian Romero, the mayor of the City of Montebello, echoed the gas industry’s views, “I implore you to act now,” she said, “I would not be fulfilling my duty as a mayor to the residents of my city if I did not stand up today and ask all of you to accelerate the timing of your plan.”

But environmental justice and public health activists criticized natural gas trucks for burning fossil fuels and for having tailpipe emissions (albeit significantly lower emissions than diesel) and asked the ports to skip over the technology and go straight from diesel to battery electric trucks.

Morgan Wyenn, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, worried that if thousands of drivers purchase natural gas trucks in the next few years, they will be reluctant to upgrade again to an electric truck before 2035.

And drivers criticized the ports for not doing enough to help them afford the new, expensive trucks.

“Why do we, the truck drivers, have to pay for the clean air,” asked Manuel Ríos, who appeared with the Teamsters.

Ultimately the Harbor Commissioners declined to make any changes to the plan, even interrupting each other in their haste bring a motion to pass it.

Why are air emissions so high at the ports?

Simply, because they have so many pieces of equipment with internal combustion engines.

  • Sixteen thousand semi-trucks that haul containers, all of which are powered by diesel or natural gas.
  • Massive container ships that burn marine-grade fuel.
  • Diesel locomotives.
  • Fork lifts and tractors and top-picks and a myriad of other smaller machines that ferry shipping containers around the ports.

Internal combustion engines burn fossil fuels, which emit smog-forming nitrogen oxides, carcinogenic diesel soot and climate-warming greenhouse gases. 

What is the impact of this pollution on people’s health?

Diesel soot, nitrogen oxide, brake pad dust and other particles emitted by port activities, help in the formation of ozone, or smog. Breathing smoggy air can inflame the lungs, triggering chest pain, congestion, throat irriation and worsening chronic respiratory problems. Diesel soot is also a known carcinogen.

People living around the ports suffer disproportionately from these pollutants. Fifteen percent of Long Beach children have asthma, compared to nine percent of US children. And asthma-related hospitalizations are higher in West Long Beach, near the ports and the 710 freeway, than on the east side of the city. The port area has a disproportionately high cancer risk from breathing polluted air – 25 percent greater than the rest of the L.A. Basin.

What’s the public health cost of doing nothing?

It’s difficult to estimate the benefits of cleaning up the air at the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach. However, the State of California has estimated that the freight-related air pollution prematurely killed 2,200 Californians in 2012 and cost the state approximately $20 billion. 

How many jobs come from the ports?

One million jobs in California are indirectly related to the goods moving through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to port estimates. That's one in eight in Long Beach, and one in 14 in Los Angeles. Interestingly, the ports do not estimate the Clean Air Action Plan will create many new jobs.

This story has been updated.