The solution would seem straightforward: Clean up the smoke coming out of the stacks. It is, fundamentally, an air pollution problem, something with which California regulators have a lot of experience, starting with the mandated removal of lead from gasoline in the 1970s. Peter Greenwald, a senior policy adviser for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, one of seven regional subauthorities set up by the state to ensure compliance with air quality standards, believes that existing technologies can cut emissions related to the movement of goods by 90 percent or more. Requiring ships to use low-sulfur fuel would reduce their particulates by 60 percent, which translates to 35 percent of the port's total.
Another big gain would come from requiring ships to "cold iron," a naval term for plugging into dockside electrical power while loading and unloading. This would cut pollution by two-thirds if the replacement power was from a coal-fired plant, or up to 100 percent if it was from renewables. Yard equipment and locomotives can burn cleaner fuel and be outfitted with catalytic converters and particle filters, cutting their emissions by up to 90 percent. Rail lines can be extended right to the dockside, eliminating the short-haul trucks, usually the dirtiest and oldest available, that bring the boxes to the intermodal yard. Trucks, responsible for 40 percent of the nitrogen oxides and 31 percent of the particulates from ports, could be required to use cleaner fuel and engines, just as has been done with gasoline car engines, under California's leadership.
But putting the diesel genie back inside the bottle turns out to be vexingly complex because of the structure of the business itself. First, it is international: Ships can freely travel from the sleek, modern quaysides of Rotterdam and Singapore to the outlaw docks of Mogadishu and back again. Problems of legal jurisdiction and political will, to say nothing of antiquated machinery, abound.
Second, the U.S. shipping business is widely dispersed geographically. There are 86 ports in this country, no two operating under the same regulatory controls. Most ports, such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, make no effort to curtail diesel pollution, even though the effects on local communities may be severe; their larger home regions are not in violation of federal air quality standards and thus haven't triggered pollution reduction mandates (with the accompanying threat of lost federal highway dollars for failure to clean up). Southern California, which still has the worst air quality in the nation, perpetually struggles to meet its mandated targets. Ports compete with one another for business, and giving companies a pass on pollution can be a major, if perverse, incentive.
Third, ports are an unusual hybrid of government and business. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are city-owned, and each is under the nominal control of a mayor and city council, yet they are semi-autonomous in matters of policy and finance. (Most West Coast ports are run by cities, while most ports in the East and the South are run by regional, sometimes interstate, authorities.) Port agencies function as landlords, making their money by leasing docks and terminals to shippers and terminal operators; most of their net income goes back into the port rather than into a city's general fund. Ports are public businesses promoting private economic development as a public good, making questions of accountability and oversight especially tricky.
Finally, the structure of the business is Byzantine. In addition to the port agencies, there are terminal operators, shipping companies, manufacturers (some of which, such as South Korea's Hyundai, own their own ships), railroads, depot and storage yard operators, trucking companies (split between big, corporate long-haul operations and mom-and-pop short haulers), distributors, and retailers.
The business tangle mirrors the regulatory system -- balkanized by overlapping federal, state, regional, and local jurisdictions. Although the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are subject to the environmental standards of 72 federal, state, and local agencies, the current situation is a result of near-total regulatory failure. Those rules that exist are often weak and poorly enforced by agencies that face determined resistance to oversight from the industry. The one agency with the direct ability to affect change, and in many cases holding a monopoly on regulatory authority, is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But the EPA has been characteristically lax, especially under the current administration. While it recently adopted a standard for ship fuel for domestically flagged vessels, it has been reluctant to touch foreign-flagged ships -- the vast majority -- arguing that it lacks authority over "international" commerce. (The administration has not been so shy when it comes to policing international financial transactions and communications, nor in putting customs agents in foreign ports to deter illicit cargo.) After much pressure, and 10 years of delays, the EPA implemented adequate standards for non-marine diesel fuel and new truck engines during the last six months, but it will not come out with even minimal standards for new locomotives for another year. None of these rules address the hundreds of thousands of engines now on the roads and rails with decades of service left.
Noel Park, now 63, moved from the Westside of Los Angeles to San Pedro in 1965, when it was a declining fishing port with only scattered freight traffic. Since then, he has raised two sons, grown his vintage Corvette business -- and watched the ports gobble up swaths of the harbor with landfill islands.
The ports kept expanding. Park recalls picking up a local newspaper in 2000 and reading an article that mentioned that California -- 10 years earlier, in 1990 -- had officially listed diesel exhaust as a cancer-causing agent. Stirred, finally, by a sense of betrayal and long-simmering anger, he and his neighbors mobilized the San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners Coalition, of which he became president. It was just one of many grassroots groups that sprang up in the region to counter what residents saw as the goods-movement industry's assault on their communities.
"We finally woke up and started reading these reports," Park said. Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs), prepared as part of the permitting process for port expansion, are required by California law. Park said he read "dozens" of EIRs, all of which listed no "significant" environmental impacts from glare, noise, traffic, or congestion -- only air pollution, which, thanks to the steady stream of public health studies being released, could not be concealed. He and his neighbors went to hearings before the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, which sets policy for the port, and spoke out. They were repeatedly brushed aside by port and city officials. "They just chant this mantra: 'It's the engine of the economy, it creates all these jobs,' " he recounted. In other words, economic growth was a greater concern than public health.
In a narrow legal sense, the officials were on firm ground. The California Environmental Quality Act allows an entity proposing a project, such as a port agency, to determine whether "overriding considerations" put the public benefits of the project, including economic growth, above the detrimental impacts. Historically, ports had made precisely this claim, and expansion projects went forward. " 'Overriding considerations' to us means that the port and its tenants need to make money," Park said, "and if a few of us die, tough sh-t."