Environment & Science

How air quality advocates are trying to win over truck drivers... again

Through the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles' Clean Trucks Program in 2008, trucking companies received subsidies to buy about 900 natural gas trucks. Many were unhappy, and now are reluctant to try them again. In order to continue cleaning up the air, the industry needs to win back their trust.
Through the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles' Clean Trucks Program in 2008, trucking companies received subsidies to buy about 900 natural gas trucks. Many were unhappy, and now are reluctant to try them again. In order to continue cleaning up the air, the industry needs to win back their trust.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Long Beach Harbor Commissioner Rich Dines was standing in front of a group of 25 or so skeptical truck drivers, doing his best to convince them to try low emission trucks... again.

He was speaking at a workshop sponsored by the natural gas vehicle industry, and all day long, the drivers had been hearing that they should give the natural gas trucks, which many of them loathed, a second chance.

“Believe me, I’ve heard all the horror stories,” he said. “And there’s been a lot of them. They just don’t work.”

Natural gas-powered trucks were introduced to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach nearly a decade ago as part of the Clean Trucks Program. Officials had offered truck drivers more than $200 million dollars in incentives to ditch smog-producing diesel rigs for more environmentally friendly options. The program was incredibly successful at cleaning up the air – the risk of getting cancer from air pollution in the South Coast dropped by nearly 60 percent between 2005 and 2012 – but the natural gas trucks performed so badly many truckers now say they’ll never drive one again.

Now, the ports of LA and Long Beach have a new, even more ambitious goal: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. To do that, they're going to need to switch to lower and eventually, zero emission trucks. Right now, the most promising low-emission engine technology is powered by natural gas. So convincing drivers to try these trucks again is hugely important to the ports. Because port activity is the largest source of smog in the LA basin, the move is meant to help the entire South Coast meet its clean air goals.

Vic LaRosa is one of the truckers who got burned in the original Clean Trucks Program. His trucking company, TTSI, bought 65 natural gas rigs and had found they broke down more frequently than his diesels,and weren’t powerful enough to haul loaded containers out of the ports.

KPCC has previously reported that these problems were wide-spread. Drivers unexpectedly ran out of fuel. Trucks spent more time in the shop than they did on the road. One small trucking company bought its own tow truck because they had spent so much money towing it to the shop.

LaRosa, however, hasn’t turned his back on natural gas technology because his company has a corporate goal to get to zero emissions, in part because management believes it will be cheaper in the long run to stay ahead of environmental mandates rather than wait until the last minute to make the shift.

In addition, he talks frequently about how diesel particulate matter is a carcinogen and how diesel trucks are the number one cause of smog, which is linked to asthma and lung problems in the LA Basin.

“Whether you’re a believer in climate change or not really doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s the effect on the environment, it’s the health effect we’re more concerned about.”

Emily Guerin

So he’s agreed to pilot the latest generation natural gas truck. But this time around, he’s more wary.

“The key for us is that, I hate to say this, is we will not trust the manufacturer. We want to test the technology,” he said.

Testing is so important to LaRosa because the first batch of natural gas trucks were not thoroughly field tested at the ports, something that engine manufacturer Cummins Westport’s CEO Rob Neitzke admits. The engines had been in use in LA Metro’s natural gas-powered buses, and based on that experience, Cummins Wesport assumed they would do fine hauling 20,000 pound containers at the ports.

“It was working really well on the transit buses. We thought with the right transmission and the gear ratios it would work really good at the port,” Neitzke said.

The company found out quickly it was wrong.

Now, Neitzke says he’s doing things right. The company has enlisted guys like LaRosa to pilot the latest natural gas trucks in the ports. Cummins Westport is monitoring the trucks’ every move and will rip apart the engine after a year or so to see how it performed.

TTSI rotates all its drivers through the new truck and on the day I visited, Ryan Sickles was behind the wheel. He popped the hood to show off the cherry-red engine and pointed out the two huge fuel tanks – so the truck can go twice as far.

“This truck has great power,” Sickles said. “I’ve hauled all sorts, all different weights of containers, and it runs just as great as all the other diesels that I’ve driven here.”

The natural gas vehicle industry loves hearing this. They hope drivers like Sickles will become the poster children for these new trucks.

“If we can get a couple of these guys to say, ‘Hey, I’ve driven these new trucks. Here’s what you can expect.’ I think that’s better than Rob saying it,” Neitzke said, “We really feel like that might help speak to some of the others who might be on the fence.”

Alejandra Rojas is definitely on the fence. She’s the manager of the small port trucking company Atlas Marine, and she’s not sure she’ll ever buy another natural gas truck again after her experience with the first ones.

She sat through the entire workshop sponsored by the natural gas companies and the ports, listening to Rich Dines and Vic LaRosa talk about how the new natural gas trucks have way more power and none of the problems of the old ones. But she said the testimonials did little to convince her the workshop’s organizers understood the reality of a small port trucking company like Atlas Marine. She owns just 10 trucks, compared to LaRosa’s 225. Atlas Marine’s profit margins and cash reserves are slim, and unexpected costs to maintain trucks can be devastating.

“We have the good intentions to keep the air clean,” she said.“But financially, it’s going to be a big burden on the company.”

The natural gas companies that put on the workshop have a big incentive to change her mind. They spent much of the workshop talking about how they have an excess of fuel and not enough trucks to put it into. But despite their clean air credentials – the newest natural gas trucks are 10 times cleaner than a comparable diesel – Rojas is skeptical that these companies even care about the environment.

“They didn’t even have recycling,” she told me while pointing at all the plastic water bottles in the trash at the workshop.

If you’re trying to win back people’s trust, details matter.