A container ship as long as three football fields glides into the still waters of the Port of Los Angeles, where it disgorges sneakers, electronic components and a plume of black exhaust.
With each docking and departure, one ship pumps an average of four tons of pollutants into the skies. On a typical day, 16 container ships arrive at the port complex that stretches from San Pedro to Long Beach, releasing more smog-forming gases than 1 million cars, or more than twice as much as all of the power plants in the Los Angeles Basin.
No other facility produces more air pollution than the port complex, and air quality officials have known it for a long time. Though strict regulations have been imposed on polluters across California, the L.A. ports have gone largely unregulated for a variety of reasons, from lack of jurisdiction over foreign-flagged ships to fears of losing trade to other cities.
Now, officials are struggling to craft new rules that will protect people's health without jeopardizing the economic benefits of being the nation's busiest waterfront. There's a lot on the line.
The Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex is a gateway to one quarter of a trillion dollars in Pacific Rim and Latin American trade. As trade continues to grow, ship emissions are expected to double in the next 20 years in Southern California.
And the big cargo ships are not the only serious source of pollution. Tugboats, harbor craft and fishing fleets add 11 tons daily, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Onshore, hundreds of trucks laden with computers from Japan, toys from China and furniture from Malaysia rumble over the Vincent Thomas Bridge toward distant cities. Smaller "yard tractors" scurry like beetles stacking containers on the docks under a pall of haze that stretches to the Long Beach skyline and beyond.
Though nearby communities such as Wilmington and San Pedro get the worst of it, onshore breezes blow the pollution inland, where it forms ozone, an acutely toxic gas, and haze that blankets suburban valleys. Smog causes bronchitis, lung irritation and chest pains. Microscopic specks of unburned fuel are linked to cancer, asthma and heart attacks.
Farther north, Santa Barbara County's chief smog fighter, Douglas Allard, has identified 102 smoky ships as "frequent fliers." They are vessels that routinely visit California waters, traveling the shipping lanes between the Channel Islands and the mainland, although there are no plans to clean them up.
In 15 years vessel smokestacks will account for two-thirds of the county's smog-forming gases, too much to maintain healthy, blue skies, Allard said.
Out in the open ocean, scientists say ship smog spreads farther than previously thought. Soot from smokestacks adds to haze and traps heat from the sun, which scientists say contributes to global warming.
"For most people, this is an invisible industry. You know when you get stuck behind a truck that smells dirty, but people are not even aware that 65% of all consumer goods are transported by ships," said James J. Corbett, professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware.
"When it comes to controlling emissions from ships," he said, "we're just at the beginning stages, about where we were in 1965 with cars. The industry is beginning to make the transition toward cleaning up, but it's the least regulated source of all."
Millions in Incentives for Cleaner Vessels
To control emissions from L.A.'s harbor, air quality officials have provided $22 million in incentives in the last few years for low-polluting barges, passenger ferries and tugboats.
Many of the giant cranes that unload cargo containers are now electric-powered. About two-thirds of the ships have reduced speed as they enter the harbors under a voluntary program, reducing nitrogen oxide emissions by about two tons daily.
Last year, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn persuaded the Harbor Commission to adopt a goal of "no net increase" in emissions from the port, although it is unclear how that will be achieved.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has primary authority over ship exhaust, two years ago enacted the first emissions standards for boats, including ferries, fishing vessels and tugboats. Those limits apply only to new vessels and take effect between 2004 and 2007.
A lawsuit by environmentalists forced the EPA to propose the nation's first emissions limits for oceangoing ships. A draft proposal covering new, U.S.-registered vessels is due April 30.
"We're stepping up to the plate. We're as concerned about this as anybody else," said Jean-Marie Revelt of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality.
But air pollution is outrunning the remedies.
In the next decade, cargo shipments are expected to grow 100%, port official say. Berths are expanding to accommodate increased traffic, high-speed rail lines are being built to move cargo more efficiently and ships are getting bigger and carrying more containers.
"We're completely dissatisfied with the regulatory approach," said Russell Long, executive director of the Bluewater Network, the San Francisco-based environmental advocacy group that sued the EPA over ship smog. "There's a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done. It's a shame this has been on the back burner so long."
The shipping industry has escaped a cleanup partly because of the economic clout it wields. Last month, President Bush stood on a dock in Louisiana and proclaimed that expanded trade will lead the nation out of recession.
In Los Angeles, port officials acknowledge that regulation must be gradual and careful or ships will pull up anchor and head for other ports, taking jobs with them.
"In cleaning up, we must not put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage to other ports," said T.L. Garrett, environmental scientist for the Port of Los Angeles. "I'd love to tell you cleaning up these boats was easy, but it's not or it would have been done a long time ago."
Government agencies in this country have limited authority over maritime pollution, since many of the ships that visit U.S. ports are based in foreign countries.
In 1973, a number of countries agreed in principle to control pollution from ships, but they deferred specific action to cut exhaust.
Twenty-four years later, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships was amended, and for the first time set limits on sulfur in fuel and emissions of nitrogen oxides, a precursor to smog.
Yet today, too few nations have ratified the agreement to make it binding. Although government officials say voluntary compliance is high, the limits are so lenient that they allow 50% more sulfur in fuel than ships typically use.
Cargo ships are powered by house-size engines that are cheap to run and have changed little since diesel engines replaced steamships in the early 1950s.
The ships can last for 40 years, so replacing them with cleaner-burning new models is a slow process. Most ships have no pollution controls and burn "bunker fuel," low-grade petroleum that produces about 50 times more haze-forming pollutants than the dirtiest diesel trucks on U.S. highways.
Davis' Budget Eliminates Funds for Retrofitting
Not even the United States requires existing ships to retrofit with clean technologies, although some improvements have been made on smaller vessels. California had paid for that work using state funds, but Gov. Gray Davis' new budget eliminates the program to help make up a projected $12-billion budget shortfall.
There are a few places in the U.S. and Europe where aggressive measures are being pursued.
In Sweden, low-polluting ships pay discounted fees to unload goods in harbors, while large portions of the Baltic and North seas have been designated "emissions-control areas," where only vessels equipped with low-polluting technologies can operate.
Houston authorities are powering harbor boats and other equipment with cleaner-burning diesel fuel, a method being studied for the L.A. harbors.
In Alaska, cruise ships get electricity from docks so vessels do not run diesel engines to keep lights and pumps running. But port officials in Los Angeles say dockside electrification doesn't work for all vessels and is too costly.
Neighborhoods in the harbor area bear the brunt of the pollution.
A recent AQMD study shows that diesel exhaust from ships, trucks and trains is so prevalent around the ports that people living near Wilmington are subject to significantly greater risk of cancer than people living elsewhere in the Southland.
"The people in Wilmington and San Pedro are the ones who pay the price so everyone else can have bananas in winter," said Dr. John Miller, an emergency room physician who has lived in Wilmington for 22 years. "I think it's unfair the burden of this falls disproportionately on the shoulders of people who are economically disenfranchised."
Wilmington is an industrial, mostly Latino community, its skyline dominated by spires poking up from oil refineries.
Ships pass so close to neighborhoods that the vessels seem to be moving through the streets.
Every morning, hundreds of trucks jam the Harbor Freeway to pick up goods from the ports. About 34,000 move in and out of the harbor each year, and the number of trips is expected to triple in 20 years.
A big American flag at the Wilmington Avenue offramp is coated in grime.
"At 5 or 6 in morning, you can smell the exhaust in the air," said Jesse Marquez of the Wilmington Coalition for a Safe Environment. "We know they are going to have new trucks and port expansion; we just don't want to die in the process."
Frustrated by the slow pace of cleanup, the Legislature is beginning to regulate pollution at the ports.
Last year, Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) sponsored a law that required port officials to cover enormous piles of coke, a byproduct of oil refining that can cause cancer if inhaled in sufficient quantities.
The AQMD had delayed controls on the coke piles when port officials complained about costs, even though residents said black dust was soiling their cars and laundry and the U.S Customs Service and the Los Angeles Fire Department had relocated operations away from Terminal Island to protect workers. Today, large pipes and towering concrete domes cover the coke piles.
"The ports are part of a greater community, and the environment there does not just impact the ports, but the neighborhoods around them as well," Lowenthal said.
"The regulators have taken a long time to come to grips with the impacts of this giant economic engine," he said.