A Decade of Progress at Southern California Ports

This month marks the 10th anniversary of a landmark legal victory against the Port of Los Angeles.  In 2002, two environmental groups teamed up with San Pedro and Wilmington residents and forever changed how the Port of Los Angeles conducts business by successfully halting one of the Port’s largest expansion projects. 

NRDC’s lawsuit, which included the Coalition for Clean Air and two San Pedro homeowners groups, challenged the City and Port of Los Angeles’ decision to expand the China Shipping container terminal under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  Once built, the project would result in one million annual diesel truck trips into local neighborhoods, over 250 annual calls by ocean going vessels carrying 1.5 million container units and burning some of the dirtiest fuel on the market, and increased pollution from countless numbers of diesel tugboats and container handling equipment.  This project—which would occupy the equivalent of five football fields—would be next door to thousands of San Pedro and Wilmington residents, the closest of whom lived only 500 feet from the project site.

At the time of our lawsuit, scientists had already established a link between diesel exhaust from trucks, ships and trains to elevated levels of asthma, cancer, stroke, heart attack and premature death.  The fear was that this project would intensify those health impacts in already environmentally-burdened harbor communities.

Our legal claim was simple:  Before the Port could build its project, it had to disclose how the project could harm public health and the environment, and take reasonable actions to reduce that harm.  This is CEQA’s basic mandate.  On October 23, 2002, the Court of Appeals agreed.  The Court ordered the Port to stop all construction and operation of the project until it complied with the law. 

The result of our lawsuit was a settlement agreement that created a $50 million air quality and aesthetic mitigation fund and the construction of the first green container terminal in the world that utilizes “shoreside power” for ships and alternative fuel container handling equipment.  More importantly, what it really accomplished was to jumpstart radical, transformative changes by the Port in how it conducts its business.  Two years later, the Port of Los Angeles vowed to find ways to grow the Port without growing its emissions, and released its “No Net Increase Report.”  One year after that, the Port of Los Angeles teamed up with the Port of Long Beach and made an even greater pledge to reduce port-generated pollution by 45% by 2011 with the adoption of their first joint Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP).  The CAAP included a compendium of initiatives to clean-up ships, trucks, trains and cargo handling equipment.  Four years later, the twin port complex updated the CAAP by adopting additional long-term air quality goals, including a promise to lower the cancer risk levels experienced by port-adjacent communities, who are the most affected by toxic pollution created by port activity, by 85%.  These efforts coupled with the past 10 years of progressive air quality regulations California has adopted to reduce diesel exhaust will prevent more than 10,000 premature deaths over the course of about 15 years.

Did this all really come from just one lawsuit?  To be sure, the scientific research flowing from our leading universities that validated our public health concerns helped, as did strong community voices and the political will of local government officials.  However, our lawsuit was indisputably a catalyst for all this positive change.  Unprecedented at the time, environmentalists and a small harbor community bravely took on the largest economic engine in the State and were triumphant.  Our legal victory represents one of those instances when a few “Davids” took on a “Goliath” and won. 

But the story does not end there, as much as I wish it did.  I wish I could say that in light of the China Shipping victory, communities near the ports finally breathe healthy air.  But I cannot.  You see, so much more work still needs to be done.  Even with the fruits of the China Shipping settlement in place, communities near the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach continue to have a cancer risk from diesel pollution that remains much higher than residents elsewhere in the region, despite significant improvements in air quality over the last decade.  Further, new port and highway infrastructure projects waiting in the queue are proposed to be built dangerously close to schools and homes even though cleaner alternatives exist.  At the same time, the list of serious health impacts related to diesel exhaust and “traffic” pollution is growing, as prominent scientists report linkages between this pollution and low birth weight, birth defects, premature birth, lower IQ and cognitive impairment, diabetes and even obesity.  To make matters even worse, trucking, shipping and railroad associations have built armies of lawyers and lobbyists that are working night and day to chip away at our hard-fought clean-air victories.

Sometimes it takes a major case like “China Shipping” to hold a dirty industry’s feet to the fire and for progress to occur, but it should not have to be that way.  Communities near our ports and other freight transportation corridors like rail yards, warehouses and distribution centers cannot wait for another legal victory to breathe clean air.  However, when daily advocacy fails and community voices are ignored, we will continue to rely on our fundamental public health laws for protection.

Today, every project that the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach undertake is cleaner than it was 10 years ago.  And to be clear, this clean-up work has not come at the cost of jobs or economic growth.  The fruits of the China Shipping victory have shown the world that there is a cleaner—in fact, better—way to conduct business at ports.  That is something we can all be proud of even as the fight for clean air continues.