On a sunny spring day at Hudson Elementary School in Long Beach, the gleeful shrieks of children on the playground almost drowned out the dull roar of truck traffic.
A third-grader raced into school nurse Suzanne Arnold's office.
"Ambrosia's chest is hurting, she's lying down," she announced. The nurse sighed as she tugged out an old green wheelchair. "Ambrosia is one of my regulars. Last week, she had an asthma attack on the school bus and had to be taken to the emergency room."
Hudson Elementary is tucked in the crook of California's busiest industrial arm. A few miles from the booming ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, its playground backs up to the truck-clogged Terminal Island Freeway, flaring refineries and double-stacked freight trains powered by belching locomotives.
More than 40% of retail goods imported to the U.S. funnel past this poor but tidy neighborhood.
Soon, a global truck and train off-loading center may be built less than 1,000 feet from the schoolyard. It is designed to speed up freight transport and improve regional air quality by pulling diesel trucks off the freeways, and would add 1 million more truck trips a year to local streets.
"What's being proposed is sacrificing this neighborhood for the greater good," said Patrick Kennedy, director of the Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization.
Community activists worry that scenario may be repeated along shipping corridors across the state, from West Oakland and Roseville north of Sacramento to Commerce and the Inland Empire.
They say a new statewide emissions-reduction plan approved by the California Air Resources Board on Thursday, meant to minimize pollution caused by the skyrocketing goods movement, is unfunded, contains no new mandatory controls of polluters and would still result in an estimated 800 premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of lost school and work days each year from exposure to diesel soot, ozone and other pollutants.
The freight transportation corridors "are not located in isolated industrial areas, but in fact pass through hundreds of cities, millions of residential homes," Jesse Marquez, executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment, said in a recent speech in Wilmington.
"It is the local communities that deal with daily bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion ... that have to breathe the diesel fuel exhaust from ships, trucks, trains and yard equipment every day. It is our children that are suffering from an asthma crisis.... It is our friends and family members who are dying."
Studies back him up. Students less than a quarter of a mile from major freeways are 89% more likely to suffer from asthma.
Children in Long Beach and other industrial cities are three times more likely to suffer decreased lung development.
Workers at ports and freight yards and area residents experience higher cancer risks and heart disease.
"Californians who live near ports, rail yards and along high traffic corridors are subsidizing the goods-movement sector with their health," said Andrea Hricko, associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, which has done several of the studies.
Hricko noted that the air board's own study estimated 2,400 people die each year in some of California's poorest communities from causes tied to goods-movement air pollution.
"That constitutes a public health crisis. Can you imagine if 2,400 deaths annually were attributed to avian flu? And if state officials said, 'We have a plan to reduce that to 800 deaths, in 15 years?' Every expert in the world would be working on it. These communities deserve the same treatment."
California air board members and port and industry officials acknowledge that eliminating "toxic hot spot" communities is a stubborn challenge, but say that the technology to reduce much of the pollution exists or is rapidly being developed.
"We need to do as much as possible as quickly as possible. Our whole plan is structured to do that," said air board executive officer Catherine Witherspoon.
The proposed loading facility behind Hudson Elementary is a case in point, she said. State officials say the facility is "vital for relieving congestion and reducing emissions."
In exchange, rail officials have pledged to make the yard "green," with electric cranes and other equipment emitting no soot or other air pollution.
As for the aging, short-haul trucks that would ferry goods between the docks and the site, Witherspoon and her staff said up to $400 million in public funds should be allocated to buy 10,000 clean replacement trucks.
But trucking officials say the cost would actually be $1.2 billion.
Even if new trucks are bought, Witherspoon acknowledged that "there will always be some residual emissions.... We can bring the risk down substantially, I'm hesitant to say to completely acceptable levels, but to substantially lower levels."
Back at the nurse's office, Ambrosia, a slight 9-year-old with long, dark pigtails, slumped at the table. Her skin was ashen and she breathed in shallow bursts.
"I can't see," she said, her brow furrowed.
Arnold handed her an asthma inhaler. "Were you playing tetherball again?" she asked. The girl nodded as she puffed.
"She loves tetherball, but when she plays, she can't breathe," Arnold said.
Outside, afternoon tractor-trailer traffic thickened on the freeway. Last year, a volunteer group of mothers did traffic counts next to the school with USC researchers, tallying 580 trucks in an hour.
Goods movement into Southern California is exploding by 1.4 million containers a year and is expected to triple by 2020, if infrastructure can be built.
After hearing from China and other Asian trading partners that the flow of DVDs, sneakers and other goods was bottlenecked in Southern California, and being confronted with mounting evidence that air pollution cuts lives short and costs billions in healthcare and lost productivity, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger 18 months ago ordered his business, transportation and environmental agencies to draft a joint plan.
The goal is to improve the flow of goods while rolling back harmful air pollution to 2001 levels -- a target the state must meet under approaching federal Clean Air Act deadlines.
The emission reduction plan approved last week was the first step. A second plan on streamlining goods movement is due out in June. But funding is up in the air. The governor's ambitious infrastructure bond proposal, which included $1 billion for air quality, failed to make it onto the June ballot, and its chances in November are uncertain. The air board's piece alone would cost $6 billion to $10 billion to implement.
Some legislators, led by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), say a per-container fee of $30 to $60 should be imposed on vessel operators and shippers.
Foreign vessel operators, like interstate rail companies, say they are not subject to state or local law. State air officials have adopted controversial voluntary plans with rail companies to clean up dirty locomotives and reduce idling, and may consider similar agreements with marine operators.
Other than injurious particulate matter emitted by trucks, which is expected to drop as new state and federal standards kick in, the largest sources of harmful pollution from goods movement are the 1,900 ocean vessels that steam into the ports each year, powered by filthy, low-cost "bunker fuel," aging main engines and auxiliary engines they use to idle at port while unloading.
Environmentalists, including attorneys with the Natural Resources Defense Council, say the state has plenty of power to regulate foreign vessels, and they want mandatory controls.
The Port of Los Angeles, the nation's largest, is already quietly renegotiating leases with foreign-flagged companies to force cleanup and changes.
Marine business groups are coming up with their own plan, saying they would contribute $15 billion in start-up costs and new technology if they could establish a voluntary credit program that would require them to reduce emissions, but do it in market-based ways.
"Something needs to be done, and it needs to be done now," said Robert Wyman, an attorney with Latham & Watkins who is promoting the marine industry plan. He said neighborhoods like West Long Beach, where Hudson School is located, would benefit fastest because industry would make reductions first in public health risk zones identified by the air board.
Many experts credit the new health studies, combined with vocal protests by community groups, for successfully pushing industry and government officials to act.
The studies show $19.5 billion in costs annually to the state from deaths, lost workdays and healthcare costs.
"Those studies were the impetus for change.... We're beginning to look at the public health costs, and it's either pay now or pay later," said Wally Baker of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
Neighborhoods like West Long Beach are not only recipients of freight air pollution, but also home to the workforce that staffs the trucks, warehouses and other shipping jobs, he said. "The poorest communities have been the stomping grounds for most industrial facilities and most toxins. Because of the health studies ... and the growing political voice ... it's becoming socially unacceptable, and businesses in Southern California recognize that."
But Baker said it will never be possible to eliminate the serious health risks for Hudson Elementary and similar facilities. He said the school should not have been built where it was, and should be moved. .
Dr. Robert Sawyer, chairman of the state air board, agreed: "Where schools are already located ... where there are legitimate health concerns ... we really think relocation is an option."
Easier said than done, said Long Beach Unified School District officials, who said that it is extremely difficult to find school sites in built-out urban environments, and that Hudson Elementary and a new high school a block away serve their communities well. They hope to collaborate with industry, port and air officials to have an indoor gymnasium built at Hudson and perimeter air-quality monitors added.
The school already goes into a lockdown mode -- keeping children inside -- several times a year when a nearby refinery flares excessively. South Coast Air Quality Management District officials recently approved pilot funds to test an air-filtration system at the school.
On the same day Ambrosia went to the nurse's office, four more students complained of chest pains. As she phoned the parent of one, the school nurse offered her own take on health conditions there.
"I just have one question for all of them," Arnold said, referring to industry and government officials. "Would they send their children to school here?"