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Really Big Doings at the Ports

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As he often does in the company of giants, Greg Mitre proceeded gingerly.

He slowly drove his 105-foot-tall crane alongside a vessel which stretched further than three football fields.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 29, 2002 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday March 29, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Alameda Corridor map--A graphic that appeared in Thursday’s Section A on the super-sizing of the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports incorrectly showed that the Alameda Corridor, a rail line, will extend from the ports to the City of Industry. It will end just north of Vernon.

The crane groaned and swayed on the Long Beach wharf as it hoisted 30-ton containers--called “cans” by the dockworkers--onto the ship. Working from his sky-high cab, Mitre stacked the cans five high and just inches apart, each touching down with a thunderous boom.

“Working here can be like walking through a herd of stampeding elephants!” he shouted over the din. “It’s organized chaos on a colossal scale!”

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Machinery the size of a Home Depot. Cables thick as tree trunks. Caravans of 18-wheelers. Ships 150 feet longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall.

Mitre’s world is indeed colossal. And it’s about to get much larger.

By year’s end, the marvels of post-World War II engineering found at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex--100-acre terminals, 800-foot-long vessels, tugboats with 3,000 horsepower under their hoods--will seem like diminutive relics.

Port authorities are calling it a shift in scale from big to mega-big, and it’s needed, they say, to keep up with global economic trends.

Essentially, an insatiable American appetite for cheap imported goods is driving demand for bigger ships, which require more powerful tugboats, larger terminals with longer wharves, higher bridges, mightier cranes, and more trucks and trains to handle the freight.

Current forecasts say that over the next two decades port traffic at the 15,000-acre complex--the nation’s busiest--is going to double. Maybe triple. It would join Hong Kong and Singapore as one of the world’s most productive ports.

The transformation takes a step--and, predictably, a giant one--in April with the opening of Southern California’s biggest public works project ever, the Alameda Corridor. The $2.4-billion partially below-ground railroad system features a concrete trench 33 feet deep, 50 feet wide and 10 miles long.

At least 100 trains a day--hauling $100 billion worth of goods a year--will course the rail that will link train yards south of downtown Los Angeles to the harbor, where the first two so-called “mega-terminals” are scheduled to open this summer.

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Monuments of pavement, those terminals will feature wharves a mile long and space to handle up to six giant cargo vessels--and 2 million “cans"--at a time. Towering over the terminals will be dozens of new computerized cranes up to 240 feet tall with mechanical arms reaching 210 feet beyond the wharf.

“These cranes are engineering marvels,” said Doug Thiessen, the Port of Long Beach’s chief harbor engineer. “When people see them, they’ll be in awe.”

The cranes will load and unload a new generation of cargo ships with room to carry the equivalent of 6,600 20-foot containers--enough to stretch 25 miles. On drawing boards are plans for even larger ships--behemoths able to carry the equivalent of 15,000 “cans.”

Such monsters would be too big to squeeze beneath Long Beach’s 36-year-old Gerald Desmond Bridge, a 165-foot-high, 410-foot-long arch spanning the murky Cerritos Channel. So the city aims to replace it within four years with a $350-million suspension bridge at least 20 feet higher and 200 feet longer.

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A ‘Mega-Leap’ Into the Future

For those traveling on that bridge, or crossing the better-known Vincent Thomas Bridge over the Los Angeles River, it’s hard to appreciate the super-sized world of the ports: Because everything is big, nothing appears out of scale. But stand on the deck of the Cornelius Maersk and the jaw-dropping vastness of it all takes hold.

The ship is 1,057 feet long and, and after steering it into port one midnight recently, Capt. Henrik Larsen noted that, among cargo ships, “She’s the biggest on the ocean.”

“Fully loaded, she weighs 140,000 tons,” Larsen said, of the Cornelius Maersk, which arrived laden with freight ranging from bulldozers and race cars to jogging shoes and frozen chicken feet. “She’s has a 75,000-horsepower engine with an auxiliary booster to add 8,000 horsepower more, if needed.”

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Anticipating more cargo ships of unprecedented size, port operators are beefing up their tugboat fleets with new high-performance models that can literally spin like a top around the traditional 1,200-horsepower single-propeller styles.

At a recent crowded news conference, Long Beach Mayor Beverly O’Neill proudly announced the arrival of Foss Maritime Co.'s “6,250-horsepower, 98-foot Enhanced Azmuthing Stern Drive ‘ASD’ Thurster Tug.”

That’s a technical way of saying it’s the largest tugboat in California.

The boat’s engineer, Jerry Allen, was not joshing when he said, “This is a mega-leap in tugs. It’s got a 20-ton increase in pull over anything else on the water. It’s as though your team suddenly put 22 players on the football field.”

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The commercial fishermen who tie at San Pedro’s 75-year-old docks regard them as port bullies.

Leaning against the railing at the Ports O’ Call wharf, fisherman Steve Sullivan carped to another boater about a recent close encounter. Shorty before dawn on Jan. 21, his 59-ton trawler was slammed by a new 500-ton tug that apparently lost control because of a computer glitch.

Nodding toward four of the hulking tugs tied up just a few yards from his boat, Sullivan grumbled, “They throttle up like locomotives and leave a wake high enough to surf on.”

Marianne Venieris, of Cal State Long Beach’s Center for International Trade and Transportation, said problems are to be expected as the harbor--and nearly everything in it--grows right out of its skin.

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“The big question is this: Are we ready for all this growth?” she said.

Port authorities insist that this growth spurt is the last because they’ve finally run out of room.

Such proclamations fall flat in neighboring communities where years of feeling overwhelmed by polluting port-expansion projects have fueled the current harbor area secession movement.

No other facility in Southern California produces more traffic congestion or air pollution than the port complex. One ship dumps an average of four tons of pollutants into the skies with each docking and departure. Over the next two decades, the number of big-rig trucks rolling in and out of the complex is expected to jump from 34,000 to nearly 92,000 each day.

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Even the garbage--and the general mess--is bigger at the port.

During a tour of her seaside working-class neighborhood in Wilmington, where dodging big rigs has long been a way of life, Lucy Mejia shook her head in dismay and said, “Look what the port has done to my town.”

Pointing at a hill stacked five high with rusted containers, she added, “That’s our Matterhorn.”

A mile away in San Pedro, residents and environmentalists have been mounting legal challenges against alleged environmental violations by port officials, and proposing remedies for blight, such as collapsible cranes and floating gardens that could mask the grimiest terminal operations.

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“The Los Angeles port says we’re expendable in the face of an overriding need and an emerging global economy,” said Noel Park, president of the San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners Assn. “It suggests we should sacrifice ourselves like so much collateral damage. Does anyone really think we’re going to agree with that?”

Not really.

But with at least half a dozen more mega-terminals in the works at the harbors, port authorities have launched public relations campaigns extolling the benefits of the harbor complex, which already supports roughly 260,000 jobs and handles more than 5,500 commercial vessels and $170 billion of commerce a year.

Impressive in a Number of Areas

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In the meantime, work continues at a furious pace at the $800-million, 483-acre Pier 400 facility being built on 10 million tons of rock in the Port of Los Angeles for Maersk Sealand.

The entire UCLA campus could fit inside that terminal--with room to spare.

Standing on a berm overlooking what will soon be the most expansive terminal on Earth, Stacy Jones, the Port of Los Angeles’ chief engineer, said, “There has to be a better understanding of what this project and this harbor are all about, which is serving the needs of a five-county population base.”

A few hundred yards to the south, skip loaders and dump trucks teemed over a mile-long wharf edging the 500,000 tons of freshly laid asphalt at Long Beach’s Goliath terminal, 375-acre Pier T.

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That $500-million terminal rests on the recycled asphalt and concrete of the former Long Beach Naval Station and Naval Shipyard.

Also tagged for demolition there is a spectacular vestige of the harbor’s military heritage: Naval Dry Dock No. 1, a 70-foot deep, 108-foot wide, 1,200-foot-long concrete-and-steel chasm christened in 1941 to service aircraft carriers and battleships.

The dry dock, which serviced the 887-foot, 45,000-ton behemoth battleship Missouri as recently as 1985, will soon be filled with dirt and capped with asphalt to create more room for cargo containers.

“Regarding it as a useless hole in the ground kills me, just kills me. It goes against everything I know,” lamented retired Navy Capt. Richard Hepburn, who was docking manager at the facility from 1983 to 1985. “It was once a phenomenal engineering achievement for its generation; a product of an enormous amount of human pain and effort, concrete and steel.”

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Port authorities would say that the dry dock, like the venerable “Mighty Mo,” which saw combat in World War II and the Persian Gulf War, served its purpose.

The Ins and Outs of Global Consumption

These days the harbor favors commercial consumption on a gigantic scale. Moving cargo in and out quickly requires a surprising delicacy and necessary precision.

Beyond the breakwater at dusk, chief mate John Zarroli maneuvered a new 4,800-horsepower tug--which had the crisp smell of a new car--alongside the nose of an incoming oil tanker that, up close, looked as high as a canyon wall.

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Another tug just like it was positioned at the big ship’s stern. In carefully synchronized maneuvers, the tugs helped the tanker--which is 400 feet longer than Los Angeles City Hall is tall--glide past the breakwater, then make an immediate 47-degree turn into a 1,200-foot-wide, two-mile channel.

In the channel, the three ships slid past an eerie nighttime landscape of idling barges, flaming refinery towers, mountains of scrap metal being picked over by skip loaders, and red 100-foot cranes, their long steel arms pointing skyward. It was oddly quiet, a stunning contrast to ever-present roar of heavy machinery and warning horns the next morning.

“The motto at the port is, ‘If you’re not making noise, you’re not making moves,’ ” said crane operator Mitre. “The company wants a certain number of moves each day.”

It’s a dangerous business.

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Reported injuries at the harbor have diminished with the advent of new technologies, despite the industrial growth at the port. Still, about once a year, a port worker dies in an accident. As one dock worker put it, these days “a little bump on the machinery and you’re toast.”

In separate recent incidents, a man was crushed to death while working 200 feet above ground on a cargo crane. Another crane crushed a supervisor to death after a cable snapped. Just this month, a 63-year-old longshoreman was killed when a 3,000-pound metal disk fell from a shipboard crane at Long Beach’s Pier F. A few years ago, a man fell to his death in the 72-foot-deep cargo hold of a ship.

Mitre’s younger brother, Jeff Mitre, lost five toes a year and a half ago when a seven-ton steel beam fell off a forklift and onto his right foot.

Now, just the sights and sounds of the port make him anxious. So it was a welcome surprise when the 38-year-old surfer showed up on a recent weekday to say hello and admire the view from the catwalk of his brother’s crane.

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Surveying the frantic pace of construction going on below in almost every direction, he said, “I’m trying to get used to coming back out here.”

“In the old days, when we used to carry things on our backs, we suffered lots of back pains and cuts. But now, look out baby!” he said. “You need eyes in the back of your head because Mr. Production is always breathing down your neck and everything is huge, heavy and moving fast.”

“I’m thinking about trying a new line of work,” he said. “Maybe a clerical job.”


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