Environment & Science

Port clean air plan moves too slowly, critics say

The Port of Long Beach as seen on Thursday morning, Jan. 21, 2016. Taken together, the Ports of LA and Long Beach are the single largest source of air pollution in Southern California.
The Port of Long Beach as seen on Thursday morning, Jan. 21, 2016. Taken together, the Ports of LA and Long Beach are the single largest source of air pollution in Southern California.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Residents and air regulators are questioning whether the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are moving fast enough to cut emissions from the region’s largest source of air pollution.

At a standing-room-only public hearing Wednesday in Wilmington about the ports' latest Clean Air Action Plan, local residents urged the ports to ditch diesel engines sooner and speed up the transition to zero emissions technology. The ports are the single biggest source of pollution in the region. 

“If the technology exists, why do we have to wait so long?” asked Louis Flores, who lives next to the 110, a primary port trucking route. “People’s lives are on the line.”

In July, the ports unveiled their latest plan to slash the air pollution produced by the nation’s largest port complex. The plan is an update of the 2008 Clean Air Action Plan, which officials say has resulted in an 87 percent decrease in diesel soot emissions, a 56 percent cut in smog-forming emissions, and an 18 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions since 2005.

But progress has stalled in recent years. In 2016, emissions from trucks actually increased. Now the ports are proposing another plan with a goal more squarely focused on combatting climate change: cut greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

To get there, the ports aim to transition much of their equipment to zero emissions technology by 2030.

“You have to move away from combustion all together,” said Chris Cannon, the director of environmental management at the Port of LA.

But that 2030 timeline came under fire from locals like Sochi Gonzalez.

“The doctor told me my asthma is getting worse due to the air pollution,” she told port staff. “I beg you to please do something about it now [instead of waiting until 2030] because I might not be alive until that time.”

Regulators from the South Coast Air Quality Management District also worried that the ports weren’t moving fast enough.

Although they didn’t speak publicly at the meeting, they met with port officials on Thursday in Long Beach. According to a presentation that was available on the agency’s website Wednesday night, the AQMD had many questions about the ports' clean air plan. Among the concerns was whether the ports can cut smog-forming emissions deeply enough to help the region meet an important 2023 deadline for attaining federal ozone standards. They also told the ports that their proposed emissions reductions seemed ill-defined and “potentially too optimistic.” 

Environmental groups questioned the ports’ interpretation of the recently-passed transportation spending bill, SB 1. The ports say the bill prevents them from taking steps in the near term to force trucking companies to retire their of diesel trucks like they did in the 2008 Clean Air Action Plan. At the urging of the trucking industry, lawmakers inserted a provision that makes it more difficult for regulators to force companies to replace trucks before they have been driven 18 years or 800,000 miles.

But Melissa Lin Perrella of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the ports are giving up on truck bans too early.

“I was disappointed to see the ports take this interpretation in a public document and potentially tie its hands, and  the hands of future boards, from implementing what has been the most effective strategy the port has adopted for reducing emissions from trucks,” she said.

For its part, the natural gas industry criticized the ports for waiting too long to switch to cleaner equipment. However, their concern stems from the fact that under the current Clean Air Action Plan, there is not a long-term future for natural gas trucks at the ports.

Beginning in 2035, the ports are proposing to charge a fee on all trucks that are not zero-emissions technology, which would begin to phase out both diesel and natural-gas trucks. Instead, the natural gas industry is proposing a different, more aggressive timeline that would get emissions reductions faster. But it would involve keeping natural-gas trucks in operation.

Their suggestion is to require companies to replace their current trucks by 2023 with those that meet a new state standard for ultra low-emission engines. Currently, the only commercially-available trucks that meet the standard are powered by natural gas. Electric trucks are still in the prototype phase.

“If we do this, a child born today will go to kindergarten in five years breathing cleaner air rather than waiting until they’re in high school,” said Greg Roche of Clean Energy, a natural gas fuel supplier.

But drivers have concerns about investing in another new truck. The 2008 Clean Air Action Plan required the turnover of all 16,000-plus trucks operating at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Many drivers are still paying off the cost of their 2008 and 2009 model-year trucks, which cost upwards of $100,000. Many say they simply cannot afford to pay for another expensive new truck.

“Why do we the truckers have to pay to clean up the air,” asked former driver Manuel Ríos, speaking through a translator.

Anticipating that many drivers would struggle with the cost of a new clean truck, the original Clean Air Action Plan contained a provision that would have required companies to convert drivers, many of whom were independent contractors, into employees and buy their trucks for them. But the Port of LA was forced to remove that provision from the plan after the American Trucking Association sued and a judge sided with the industry.

So companies continued treating drivers as independent contractors. But because the trucks were so expensive and drivers often did not qualify for loans or incentives, many companies purchased clean trucks on their behalf and leased them back to the drivers. The companies have been deducting lease payments from their paychecks. Drivers have since claimed the practice is unlawful.  They also say they are being misclassified as contractors when they should be considered employees.

This time around, the clean air plan makes no attempt to change how trucking companies treat their drivers. Instead, it proposes shifting to a port-wide system for organizing how containers are moved, which staff say will reduce congestion and allow truckers to make more money.

Barbara Maynard, an organizer with the Teamsters labor union, wasn’t impressed. “We need a solution,” she said. “The exploitation of these drivers must stop.”

The ports’ respective harbor commissions will vote on the plan in November.