Riding a tide of regional discontent over noxious emissions, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are yielding to public health concerns in a way that has dramatically changed the policy landscape of Los Angeles County's largest economic engine.
Under the year-old Clean Air Action Plan, which is projected to slash port-generated pollution 45% by 2012, "green growth" has become a byword at the nation's busiest shipping complex.
The two ports already serve as the gateway for 40% of the goods imported to the United States. But the pressures to grow even more -- and to clean the air -- are prompting the longtime rivals to work together, however uneasily.
A month ago, they approved a joint mandate to replace the area's fleet of 16,800 dirty cargo trucks with new or retrofitted models by 2012. Last week, the two ports approved a cargo fee to raise $1.6 billion to put the cleaner trucks into service.
"These were gigantic achievements," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in an interview. "We're on a road that leads to cleaner ports, more jobs and a model for the world."
Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster was more blunt: "We're no longer going to subsidize cheap goods with the health of our citizens."
But many pivotal questions concerning the ports remain unresolved.
As port authorities begin hammering out details that will determine how clean air programs will be implemented and who will pay for them, some stakeholders remain wary of one another.
Those include shipping companies, terminal operators, big-box stores, homeowners, truck drivers and health advocates. Environmentalists, organized labor and lawmakers are also part of the mix.
The uncertainty could sink long-delayed port expansion projects, including on-dock rail service for one of the largest terminal operators; a higher, stronger suspension bridge to replace the aging Gerald Desmond Bridge; and additional container storage and wharf work at the YTI Container Terminal.
The business community is pushing hard for growth and jobs. Environmentalists are demanding mitigation for the negative health effects of growth.
Independent contract truckers, backed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, are demanding that trucking firms buy and maintain the new trucks, and hire them as drivers. Trucking companies are threatening to sue if forced to employ their contract drivers.
Then there is the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, a group of environmental and labor groups that has been referred to as "Teamsters and Turtles: Together at last!"
Terminal operators are concerned about a recent coalition letter co-signed by Adrian Martinez, project attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Ron Carver, deputy director of the Teamsters' port division.
"Unless we are assured that your plans include reasonable proposals for mitigating the environmental harm of your existing facility, let alone your proposed expansion," the letter warned, "we cannot see how we could let the process continue without a challenge."
By "process," Martinez meant the government approvals the terminal operators would need to expand.
Some port business owners described the letter as a "shakedown." Frank N. Pisano, vice president of the TraPac Terminal, called it "threatening."
Martinez rejects the assertions. "As in any campaign that is nearing its end," he said, "things are getting nasty out there."
Villaraigosa, however, compared the squabbling with "the growing pains that come with change."
"In the interests of green growth, historic adversaries have become part of a very delicate coalition," he added. "It's as though everyone is coming to this party holding hands but reluctant to get on the dance floor. But they will, eventually. They have to."
The stakes are indeed high. The clean trucks program could yield a cumulative economic benefit of $5.9 billion from reductions in premature deaths, lost work time and medical problems, according to the Southern California Air Quality Management District.
With the truck program in place, the ports would be free to proceed with massive infrastructure improvements that by 2025 would generate an estimated 300,000 to 600,000 new jobs.
The port complex generates about 500,000 full- and part-time jobs in Southern California.
The value of containerized trade grew from $74 billion in 1994 to $305 billion in 2006.
This year's revenue is flat, in part because of the housing downturn and weak dollar -- an estimated 22% of the containers coming through the ports are stuffed with household goods and gadgets. But port business is expected to triple by 2020.
In the meantime, at least 15 port projects have been held up since 2001, when environmental groups filed a lawsuit demanding assurances that environmental reviews for a proposed 174-acre terminal for China Shipping Container Lines Co. would be thorough.
That suit ended in 2003, with the port and L.A. officials announcing an unusual $60-million settlement with the environmental groups. Most of the money will go to an array of projects to reduce pollution.
Now, a similar dispute is shaping up over the Los Angeles Harbor Commission's Dec. 6 approval of a 6,000-page environmental impact report for a $1.5-billion upgrade of the TraPac Terminal.
That project, which has been strongly endorsed by Los Angeles business leaders, would create 6,000 new jobs and generate $200 million a year in tax revenue.
But a day after the port celebrated approval of a report that officials considered bulletproof, environmental and organized labor groups filed an appeal urging the Los Angeles City Council to overturn the action because of unmitigated health effects.
Of particular concern were the port's own predictions that air pollution would increase in the first eight years. Over time, however, the project would generate significantly less dangerous air particulates and other emissions than there would have been without an assortment of "green" mitigation measures.
But given grim statistics about pollution-related premature deaths near the ports, some critics have dismissed the Clean Air Action Plan as "a greenwash." Some community leaders worry about officials overriding the plan's promise to place health concerns above business growth in the near term.
"We just want reasonable solutions to pollution because children are getting sick, and people are dying from it," said Peter Warren of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council. "Instead, the port produces charts like one that shows the pollution levels the TraPac project would generate over time: Its first data point is 'today,' and the next is for 2015. A high school student would be flunked for a chart like that."
Few port workers face a more uncertain future than the 16,000 mostly low-paid independent contractors who drive decades-old trucks. Beginning next year, they will be eligible for financial assistance to buy newer, cleaner trucks. They will also have to undergo criminal background checks, drug and alcohol testing and identity screening aimed at tightening port security.
Many have repeatedly complained at port hearings that they cannot afford to buy new trucks, let alone maintain them. In the meantime, "a lot of truckers have stopped spending money on repairs because they aren't sure if they will still have jobs next year," said truck driver Miguel Pineda, 37, of Lynwood. "It's a terrible situation; we live like slaves in the 19th century."
But Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes the Port of Los Angeles, believes that things are changing for the better.
"At some point, we're going to turn the tide and start a downward trend in emissions," she said. "But we aren't green yet; we're just putting green policies into place. Right now, this port is still the worst polluter in the region."