Different Coasts, Same Schmutz

I used to play basketball with a guy we called “Schmutzie,” a playground variant on the Yiddish word “schmutz,” which means dirt.  I don’t know how he got the name – he wasn’t any dirtier a player than the rest of us.

Recently, I travelled across the country from the Port of Los Angeles to the Port of Newark, N.J., to meet with local environmental justice advocates about another kind of schmutz: diesel particulates from port-serving trucks, ships and trains.  I learned that the Newark ports have many of the same problems as the L.A. ports, including reliance on a dirty, aging truck fleet driven by “independent”, low-income owner-operators who can’t afford to maintain or replace their trucks.  And, like the L.A. ports, the Newark ports want to expand to bring in more business.

But unlike the L.A. ports, Newark has not realized that port operations with dirty trucks and high-sulfur marine fuels treat the air as a public sewer and carry a high price in public health.  Expansion without a change in that attitude will only make matters worse.  Newark is not alone in this – every major U.S. port has these problems to one degree or another.

I’m not here to say that Newark or any other port should slavishly copy the L.A. model or the organizing/legal strategy that has been effective here – but what L.A. has to offer is worth a serious look around the country.  The Port of Los Angeles is the largest port in the country and port leadership has taken it upon themselves to set the bar high when it comes to cleaning up future port operations. NRDC stands ready to help in Newark and anywhere else where diesel pollution is sickening and killing people and causing irreversible damage to the physical environment.  Allowing industry to profit from this situation in the 21st century calls to mind another Yiddish word:  meshuggenah.  It’s crazy.