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Dark Side of the New Economy
Page 4

In 2001 several harbor-area community groups, including Park's, approached the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Coalition for Clean Air, which had both become interested in the issue of ports pollution, to see what could be done to stop or at least slow a huge new container terminal being built at the Port of Los Angeles. It was no small project: turning a dirt lot at the base of a hill just north of downtown San Pedro, previously used to store containers, into a 174-acre terminal for the China Shipping Co., part of a multibillion-dollar international conglomerate. It would bring 150 ships and a million truck trips a year plus locomotives, yard engines, cranes, bright lights, and around-the-clock noise into what had been a relatively quiet corner of the harbor, close against residential neighborhoods.

The port was so accustomed to acting without community consultation that it hadn't even done an EIR -- in effect claiming that the expansion would have no adverse environmental impacts. "They just skipped that step altogether," said Julie Masters, an attorney and former director of the clean air program in NRDC's Santa Monica office. Unconvinced by the port's position, community and environmental groups together challenged the permit process, first in state court, then federal, but were repeatedly thwarted. All the while the port kept building. Finally in 2002, a state appellate court stopped construction -- though the project was nearly half finished -- until an EIR was prepared.

The decision was a huge victory: No court in the United States had ever before stopped a major port expansion. Still, Masters and her team knew that the port could declare "overriding considerations" and eventually proceed. The delay would be costly, however, so the port had reason to negotiate. "We sat down with the port and the city and talked settlement," Masters said.

They struck a deal: The port could continue to operate the 75 acres it had already built; in return, it would pay $50 million over four years for environmental mitigation, as well as switch equipment to clean fuels and electrify the docks for 70 percent of the ships to plug in at the terminal. Within a few years, China Shipping had converted 17 of its vessels to cold ironing, the first shipping company in the world to use this technology for its container vessels. Last year 71 percent of the firm's vessels calling in Los Angeles plugged in, reducing the emission of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter for each ship by one ton per day.

In 2002, the same coalition challenged an expansion plan at the Port of Long Beach on the grounds that the EIR the port had filed was inadequate. The Long Beach City Council kicked the application back to the port for a new EIR.

The unprecedented stoppages served notice that harbor communities could no longer be ignored by the ports or the shipping industry. Companies "see the writing on the wall," said Port of Long Beach spokesman Art Wong. "They know that if they don't support these kinds of changes, the public will turn against them." The outcome also demonstrated that alternative technologies such as cold ironing and clean-fuel yard equipment could be embraced by industry. At China Shipping's terminal, the manic dance of machines unleashed whenever a vessel is unloaded and loaded again is startling for what it lacks: smoke. A ship plugged into a small barge festooned with cables spews no black clouds, nor do cranes, trucks, and top-handlers running on clean fuels. The air is markedly more breathable than at other port terminals.

On the other hand, the victories were limited: No other terminals were affected; the ports and their tenants simply delayed expansion plans and continued to increase traffic by becoming more efficient and adding nighttime working hours. Five years later, neither port had completed the mandated EIR, yet total business was still on target to triple by 2020 and container throughput to quadruple by 2025. And the ports were already bursting at the seams. In the summer and fall of 2004 a spectacular bottleneck of ships waiting to unload filled San Pedro Bay outside the harbor, with as many as 50 vessels stacked up at a time, each one sending a plume of smoke skyward as it idled.

With pressure visibly mounting, the state government and the ports drafted their own plans to roll back pollution to 2001 levels and triple trade traffic by 2020, a heroic achievement even in the imagination. The plans included a laundry list of mostly sensible technical fixes -- using cleaner marine fuel, scrubbing ship stacks, cold ironing, replacing 12,000 short-haul trucks, retrofitting locomotives, expanding roads -- all good solutions, but not very meaningful without mandatory controls or a means to pay for it all.

Then, in the summer of 2006, legislation drafted by State Senator Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach seemed to offer a solution. The bill proposed a $30 fee per container at the ports, which would generate $500 million a year to be split among security, infrastructure expansion, and air quality improvements. This would amount to just 0.77 percent of the goods-movement industry's annual net of $64.7 billion but would substantially contribute to the $400 million to $667 million annual cost of the emission reductions recommended by the California Air Resources Board in its 2004 report on ports pollution.

Business groups protested: The California Chamber of Commerce called the bill a "job killer." The National Retail Federation warned that it might push shippers elsewhere, to Canada or Mexico. To which David Freeman, chairman of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, replied: "They're whistling Dixie." Freeman knows there are no other ports in the hemisphere big enough to handle anywhere near the volume of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The industry, Freeman added, ought to get ready for change: "This is all going to happen, and it's not going to have a huge impact on the price of goods." The billions of dollars it would cost over five or ten years, he said, works out to "two cents on a pair of tennis shoes."

The Lowenthal bill passed, but only barely; then, last fall, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. Local proponents of the bill, such as Laura Rodriguez, were left feeling frustrated and "impotent," in her words. "Sometimes I think that nothing we do counts." Rodriguez attended a recent Long Beach City Council hearing where officials discussed 10 expansion proposals for port-related facilities. She wishes she could move to Big Bear Lake, a piney ski town in the San Bernardino Mountains, 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, where her children might breathe more easily.

Noel Park, also disillusioned after years of fighting the ports' plans, decided recently to move 10 miles west to the Palos Verdes peninsula, where, according to the cancer risk map he carried around while house-hunting, the air is somewhat cleaner. "I swore to God I was going to live my life out in that house," he said. "I've lived here 38 years." Most of all, he was saddened by the implications of his own departure: "Anyone who takes the trouble to understand the issues leaves. And who's left behind? The people who can't leave. Well, God have mercy on them. If that's not environmental injustice, I don't know what is."

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