Driving Toward Clean Air at Our Nation’s Ports

This post was co-written with Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. NRDC and Sierra Club are members of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, supporters of the clean truck program.

"Cancer alley."  That's what many Southern Californians call the 23-mile rail and truck corridor connecting our nation's largest seaport to massive distribution centers east of Downtown Los Angeles.  In California alone, diesel air pollution from ships, trucks and trains kills more than 3,700 people every year -- more than died in the 9-11 attacks.

Despite this stunning death-toll, the American Trucking Association is aggressively trying to dismantle a successful program adopted a year ago this month by the Port of Los Angeles that is well on its way to reducing diesel emissions from port trucks by 80 percent, and establishing a model that diesel-afflicted communities around the nation are beginning to follow.

California's diesel body count may be highest, but concentrations of cancer, asthma and other diseases caused by air pollution occur wherever large amounts of cargo move by ship, truck and train.  The victims tend to be poor people of color who live or work alongside our ports, freeways and cargo hubs.  But toxic diesel smoke knows no boundaries.  It follows the wind, depositing carcinogenic particulate matter in the lungs of rich and poor alike.

By banning the oldest trucks outright, putting cleaner trucks on the road, and creating powerful rules to move cargo greenly, Los Angeles officials have removed 2,000 of the dirtiest rigs from service and helped business put nearly 6,000 clean-burning and alternative fuel trucks on the road.

The landmark clean truck program at the Port of Los Angeles sets the standard because it ensures that trucking companies that can afford to meet increasingly stringent environmental standards are responsible for clean-up, instead of independent truck drivers, who have been historically underpaid.  Under the program, trucking companies agree to meet environmental, safety, and security standards in exchange for access to port terminals.  

However, the trucking industry is spending millions of dollars to undermine this progress and the progress of like-minded ports nationwide that want to adopt clean-up plans.  In an ongoing lawsuit against the Port of Los Angeles, the trucking industry is trying to weaken the progressive clean truck program, arguing that the port has no authority to reform port trucking operations that occur on its own property or even cure inefficiencies that affect the bottom line.  Industry representatives go so far as to argue that the port should be barred from verifying whether trucks comply with clean air standards when entering port facilities.   

Municipal airports and privately-owned stadiums place conditions on those who want to do business there, increasing the odds that vendors operate safely and consistently provide a high level of service.  Ports should feel empowered to do the same.

The litigation by the trucking industry relies on obscure federal law that wasn't designed to restrict the right of local governments to protect their residents' health. That's why Congress should act now to clarify the right of states and municipalities to protect their citizens from the lethal byproduct of cargo transport.   

Los Angeles has survived these challenges so far, but the specter of intense litigation with the trucking industry may dissuade other ports and municipalities from pursuing similar programs to reduce diesel pollution and save lives. Mayors Bloomberg and Booker of the Ports of New York and Newark respectively, Mayor Ritter of the Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Port of Oakland Mayor Dellums, and officials in Virginia, Charleston, Houston, and Tacoma know that unchecked diesel pollution degrades and shortens lives and causes tens of billions of dollars in health-related costs every year. They are all calling to regulate and reduce truck-produced pollution at their ports.

Our collective failure to protect the public from diesel pollution is a moral outrage and a shame on our nation.  Fortunately, the Obama Administration appreciates that Americans want and deserve clean air and the sustainable jobs that accompany it. In the case of Los Angeles, there's a proven track record of success. As we celebrate the program's first year, Congress should embrace this local green-growth model and take action to protect it.