Environmental Issues > Air Main Page > All Air Documents

Southern California has the worst air quality in the country. The Los Angeles region is home to the largest port complex in the nation, which relies on diesel-powered ships, trains, and trucks to sustain its operations. Smog and diesel particulate matter pollution are linked to cancer, asthma, premature death and cardio-respiratory diseases. The elderly and children are the most vulnerable to these pollutants. NRDC's Southern California office has developed practical solutions to help ameliorate Los Angeles' air pollution problem that can be applied nationally and internationally.

Tackling Pollution from the Freight Transport System

The volume of freight moved by the U.S. transportation system has grown dramatically over the last few decades and is expected to increase by 70 percent by 2020. The network of vehicles and equipment that transport our iPods, tennis shoes, and other consumer goods is referred to as the "freight transport system." This system relies heavily on diesel-powered vehicles and equipment and is responsible for thousands of premature deaths every year in California.

A large container ship plugs into the shore power grid at the China Shipping terminal in Los Angeles, the first electrified container docks in the U.S.

Progress at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach

More than a decade ago, NRDC identified the impacts of freight transportation as one of the most compelling public health and environmental issues in California. In 2001, we successfully sued the City and Port of Los Angeles under California environmental laws over a major expansion project at the China Shipping container terminal. The result of that lawsuit was the creation of a $50 million air quality and aesthetic mitigation fund and the first green container terminal in the world that utilizes "shoreside power" for ships and alternative fuel container handling equipment. Despite this victory, however, more work needs to be done. The cancer risk from diesel pollution is 60% higher for communities close to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach than elsewhere in the region, and has steadily increased over the years, while pollution in other areas has dropped.

Between 2005 and 2008, we helped the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach develop their landmark Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP) and Clean Truck Programs (CTP). The CAAP includes a compendium of air pollution control measures aimed at drastically cutting port-generated air pollution while enabling the ports to grow. The CTP modernizes 16,000 port-serving trucks by phasing out the use of older, more polluting diesel trucks in favor of cleaner trucks. Further, in 2008 in connection with the "TraPac expansion project," we secured $50 million for the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation from the Port of Los Angeles to offset the environmental impacts of that project through initiatives that will improve public health and the quality of life for the port-adjacent communities.

NRDC attorneys work with the City of Los Angeles, the Ports and many other allies to clean up diesel freight in Southern California. Pictured here, left to right: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with NRDC attorney Adriano Martinez, with NRDC staff in the background: President Frances Beinecke, Adrianna Quintero and Susan Egan Keane.

We work closely with community partners to ensure that the CAAP's clean air targets are met. Our legal team is defending the City of Los Angeles' Clean Truck Program against legal attack by the trucking industry (we have prevailed thus far). We are also working closely with the Port of Los Angeles to ensure that the CTP has robust enforcement so that only motor carriers that meet the Port's environmental standards are granted the privilege of doing port business, and that port-serving trucks are well-maintained. We also work closely with the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation to monitor the implementation of their mitigation fund. Specifically, we are actively engaged in a $6 million initiative that will install air filtration systems in harbor area schools.

Reduce health risks from rail yards and promote zero emission technologies

Communities as far as eight miles away from some of LA's busiest rail yards face increased cancer risk due to rail yard emissions. We have pressed the railroads to clean up their operations by commencing a precedent-setting case under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act on behalf of local environmental justice groups, and by advocating for alternatives to two rail yard projects, which, if approved, will be sited close to multiple schools and homes. We also actively promote the use of zero emission vehicles and equipment to replace dirty diesel cargo transport. We are working with the ports to jumpstart the use of more electric trucks and cargo handling equipment through various remaining settlement funds, air quality incentive program and clean air targets.

Export our goods movement expertise

NRDC attorney Melissa Lin Perrella, a force for clean cargo, hard at work in her office.

As the preeminent voice on goods movement pollution, we consult on freight projects across the country, including in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Mississippi, Oakland, Seattle, Stockton, Kansas, New Jersey and New York. We are working to export our expertise and create legal and science based tools that community advocates can use to advocate for cleaner goods movement projects. EPA estimates that 13 million people live in the vicinity of marine ports and rail yards, 3.5 million of whom are children. We strive to replicate our California success stories in these communities.

Related Projects

Promoting alternatives to highway expansion: LA is notorious for its clogged highways. However, building and widening roads is not a sustainable solution. History shows that building more highway lanes promotes vehicle use and results in more air pollution. Reducing traffic and associated pollution will require a dramatic shift from driving private automobiles to riding clean, widespread and affordable public transit. Further, in connection with our goods movement work, we are advocating for zero emissions container movement systems as an alternative to building new, heavily-polluting truck freeways to carry containerized cargo to local rail yards.

Healthy Transit Oriented Development (TOD): Creating new housing near transit stops can reduce automobile use. However, many transit stops in LA are located near major roadways, which poses health risks to residents. We are developing TOD criteria that will provide the benefits of TOD while protecting the health of residents moving into these communities. Further, we are working with community groups on specific development projects to ensure that they revitalize distressed neighborhoods without gentrification, while reducing vehicle-related pollution. Ensuring that new TOD does not displace low income communities of color will maximize the environmental benefits of placing more residents near transit.

Greening Los Angeles' Construction Projects: NRDC has been leading the charge to convince the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Agency (Metro) to adopt a Green Construction Policy that will require projects to utilize only construction equipment, vehicles, and generators that meet strict clean air standards. As Metro moves forward with the construction of a number of major public transit projects over the next ten years with funds from Measure R and the 30/10 initiative, this policy will make sure that the construction of LA's public transit system does not bring needless air pollution into communities around the county.

last revised 2/22/2012

Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter

See the latest issue >

Give the Gift That Will Make a Difference: Take Down a Polluter

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.


Donate now >

Related Links and Resources

Share | |
Find NRDC on
YouTube