Elected officials are demanding swift action and increased oversight at the Port of Los Angeles following disclosure that a second major shipping company has been allowed to skirt requirements to reduce harmful diesel emissions.
Port officials failed to require two large terminal operators, TraPac and China Shipping, to comply with air quality improvement measures the city adopted years ago, including mandates that massive cargo ships shut down their diesel engines and plug into shore-based electricity while at the docks.
Instead, a high percentage of those vessels have been allowed to leave their engines on, spewing exhaust over homes, businesses and schools in nearby San Pedro and Wilmington, where residents live within hundreds of feet of the TraPac terminal. Health studies have shown people who live near the port complex have increased asthma rates and the region's highest cancer risk from air pollution.
TraPac's failure to meet the requirement is "a huge breach of faith," said U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Los Angeles), who as an L.A. City Council member helped negotiate the shore power requirement as a condition for allowing TraPac to expand operations at the city-owned port in 2009.
Hahn renewed a call she made two months ago for independent oversight of the port after The Times reported that port officials had secretly given China Shipping permission to ignore the shore power mandate.
"It's clear the port cannot police itself," Hahn said Wednesday morning.
Port Executive Director Gene Seroka, a former shipping executive appointed in 2014, has said construction work at the port and last year's labor trouble kept many TraPac ships from using shore power.
The work slowdown left ships waiting in the water outside the port for weeks, forcing shipping companies to charter additional vessels to clear inventory piling up on docks in China and elsewhere. Those vessels were not equipped to plug into shore power and had to be allowed to leave their diesel engines running when they arrived at U.S. ports, Seroka said.
China Shipping has said many of the vessels using its terminal also were not equipped to use shore power.
The failure to tap into electrical power is a lightning rod for criticism because cargo ships' enormous diesel engines are a huge and obvious source of pollution — you can hear them running, smell the exhaust and see it billowing from the giant smokestacks.
Kathleen Woodfield is one of the San Pedro residents who led the years-long fight, including a drawn-out lawsuit and countless administrative meetings, to win environmental concessions from China Shipping and TraPac.
Woodfield said port officials had to know for years that the shore power requirements weren't being met, and she's shocked by their "pervasive" flouting of the clean-air measures.
"I was in those negotiations; they were exhausting," she said. "I can't tell you how much it hurts to find out it was just wasted, that a handful of people behind closed doors decided to take our victories away."
Statewide, ocean vessels release nearly twice the smog-forming nitrogen oxides as all the automobiles in California, according to state emissions inventories.
Each container ship that idles its engines while docked instead of plugging in spews an extra ton of nitrogen oxides, more pollution than 40,000 cars release each day, according to emissions data from state and federal environmental regulators.
Between them, TraPac and China Shipping account for about a third of the cargo moving through the Port of Los Angeles, making them valued customers for a port that competes with other seaports, including the adjacent Port of Long Beach.
In a written statement on Tuesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti said the port has been meeting or surpassing its overall clean-air goals in recent years. But he added that "it is clear we have more work to do at both the TraPac and China Shipping terminals to further improve air quality for our city and in particular the neighborhoods that surround the harbor."
Garcetti said he has directed Seroka to work quickly. The mayor did not say what he instructed Seroka to do.
On Wednesday afternoon, Seroka issued a statement saying, "We agree that regular public reporting of compliance is needed."
City Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who chairs the committee that oversees the port, said he is "extremely concerned" and plans to question port officials at a public hearing this month.
In the mid-2000s, as the city moved to expand the terminal used by China Shipping, local residents sued and won a settlement requiring the port to impose strict new environmental measures on the company, including significant increases in the use of shore power.
After initial public disclosure of China Shipping's failure to comply fully, Seroka announced a review of TraPac's compliance with similar clean-air mandates. Details of that audit, released last week under the California Public Records Act, show that ships plugged into shore power at the TraPac terminal 53% of the time in 2015, far below the requirement of 80%.
The port also failed to ensure that all yard equipment at the TraPac terminal ran on the cleanest available diesel engines by 2014, as required in the firm's expansion agreement with the city, the audit found.
TraPac officials could not be reached for comment.