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Feature Story

Dark Side of the New Economy

by Wade Graham

California's San Pedro Bay ports form a vast metropolis of polluting cargo ships, trucks, and locomotives -- a "diesel death zone," say the neighbors, who are fighting back against the leviathan.

The Hudson School in West Long Beach looks like a typical California public school: a rectangle of perhaps 10 acres set in a quiet neighborhood of modest bungalow-type houses, with haphazard groupings of trailers (called temporary buildings even though they are manifestly permanent), broad lawns, and an asphalt playground bounded by chain-link fencing. On most days children of many colors play tetherball and basketball in the warm sun or sit at picnic tables shaded by tall pines, while overhead, gulls call and palm fronds rustle in the gentle breeze from the Pacific two miles away.

The breeze also brings the acrid taste of diesel exhaust and the stench of raw petroleum from the massive refineries that stretch for nearly half a mile toward the water. Just over the fence, beyond the tetherball courts, an endless double line of trucks -- around 3,000 a day -- creeps past on the Terminal Island Freeway, most of them hauling steel shipping containers into the Union Pacific rail yard that sprawls a few hundred yards from the Hudson School. Across the road, long trains piled with more containers, marked with block letters reading CHINA SHIPPING, HYUNDAI, YANG MING, and MAERSK, clank slowly along, and a locomotive pulling a line of black chemical tank cars idles. When the refinery nearby has to flare off more than the usual amount of gases, it calls ahead to the school and the students are kept inside. But on any other day there are no such precautions. And children get sick: The air can irritate eyes, noses, throats, and lungs and cause coughing, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Allergies and asthma attacks flare along with the pollution.

Long Beach is a harbor town. Its city-owned port is the second-largest in the nation, close behind the Port of Los Angeles, its immediate neighbor to the west, which is bounded by the communities of San Pedro and Wilmington at the southernmost tip of sprawling Los Angeles. Together they make up what would constitute the fifth-largest port in the world and the largest outside Asia, sharing a single, massive harbor embraced by an eight-mile-long breakwater curving out into San Pedro Bay. Inside is a prodigious landscape of infrastructure: 15,100 acres of land and water, interfingered with 60 miles of industrial waterfront bristling with cranes, ships, parking lots, roads, bridges, storage tanks, pipelines, warehouses, and rails. In 2005 the two ports handled nearly 5,800 ships that carried 40 percent of all the seaborne goods imported into the United States (some $300 billion worth), employing 500,000 people in Southern California and paying $22 billion in payroll and $7 billion in taxes.

All manner of traditional bulk cargo passes through: Oil, cars, salt, and steel come into the country while chemicals, plastics, gypsum, scrap metal, machinery, parts, lumber, cotton, and food go out. But most of the action is choreographed around the moving of boxes, the standardized containers that hold 90 percent of the cargo entering the harbor. At the San Pedro Bay ports, they hold mostly the cheap Asian consumer goods that have taken over the world's markets. In 2005 the ports pushed 14 million 20-foot "container units" (many containers are actually 40 feet long) into the Los Angeles Basin, a vast, four-county coastal plain.

Forty thousand truck trips a day are needed to move the boxes from the docks and terminals along a circuit board of roads, highways, and bridges. Some head for the massive truck-to-train "intermodal" facility across from the Hudson School, where the containers are transferred to trains running north to the rail yards east of downtown Los Angeles. Others make their way to the narrow, choked Long Beach Freeway, I-710, which hugs the concrete channel of the San Gabriel River before branching out into the vast transportation matrix of the region. Half the cargo is absorbed here; the rest fans out across the country through the steel and asphalt circulatory system of distribution and consumption that sustains the U.S. economy. As an example, 60 percent of the imported goods shipped to the Chicago area come through Los Angeles.

The San Pedro Bay ports, abetted by interested governments, began investing heavily from 1960 on to capture market share in the new containerized global shipping business. In a region that has seen its leading postwar industries -- aerospace, automobiles, shipbuilding, and other heavy manufacturing -- gutted in the last few decades, this strategy has paid off handsomely. Shipping volume doubled from 1990 to 2000 and has nearly doubled again since. In 2005, volume was up 8 percent from 2004; in 2006, it rose another 10 percent.

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This article was made possible by a grant from the Josephine Patterson Albright Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Wade Graham is an environmental writer and activist who contributes to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Harper's, the New Yorker, and Outside. He is also a trustee of the Glen Canyon Institute, a Salt Lake City-based group dedicated to restoring the canyons of the Colorado River.

Photos: Aantonin Kratochvil

OnEarth. Spring 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council