It was just over a year ago that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were engaged in a testy standoff with far-reaching implications for Southern California: Members of their governing commissions refused to attend each other's meetings and could not even agree on a baseline year for analyzing pollution caused by their facilities.
Last week, those same leaders announced a joint air-quality plan that reflected a significantly new approach to stemming pollution and profoundly changed the relationship between the historic antagonists that command the nation's first- and second-largest commercial harbors.
Many factors have contributed to the turn from competition to cooperation. The rising influence and changing views of labor, the growing power of environmental interests and the shifting winds of local politics all have played a part.
The result, said leaders of both ports and some outsiders, is a newly minted cooperation between two entities whose leaders have regarded each other with suspicion for decades. Indeed, when the two commissions met a few months ago, it was the first such joint session since 1929.
Those leaders now are attempting to chart a common course in enforcing pollution controls and other regulations on their customers -- one key plank of which was unveiled last week with their far-reaching proposal to reduce pollution from trains, ships and trucks that use the port by more than 50%.
Among the proposed requirements: Ships that use either the Long Beach or Los Angeles port will have to use cleaner fuels and electricity rather than diesel when tied up; in return, the two ports promise expansions that will allow shippers to increase their business in the region.
"Historically," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said last week, "what we've been doing with Long Beach ... was in competition."
Bob Foster, the new mayor of Long Beach, agreed: "There has been some tension."
That tension reflects the competition between the two ports and the different place each holds in its city.
Los Angeles' port, the nation's largest, encompasses 43 miles of waterfront and features 26 massive cargo terminals. It is a bustling and often gritty complex, through which moved nearly 7.5 million 20-foot equivalent containers last year. But it is appended to the rest of the city by the thin band of Los Angeles that reaches down to the coast.
Long Beach, by contrast, is nestled directly next to its booming port, which shipped 6.7 million of those same containers in 2005. It covers 3,200 acres and is responsible for about one of every eight jobs in the city.
Together, the shipping centers generate more than 500,000 Southern California jobs, dwarfing other major industries in the region. But the ports also cough up pollution: Trucks stream in and out of the complexes, and the cargo ships that moor there bellow thick smoke, heavy with particulates. A single tanker that burns dirty fuel can produce as much air pollution as 12,000 cars. That pollution wafts across the entire region, with Long Beach being especially hard-hit.
Faced with growing community concern about that pollution and with the realization that neither port, acting alone, could arrest it, the two began to send out cooperative feelers last year.
Officials and others said one early and important move was Villaraigosa's selection of S. David Freeman, formerly the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and a fervent environmentalist, to lead Los Angeles' Board of Harbor Commissioners. Villaraigosa staffed the balance of the commission with advocates for labor, the environment and the community.
With Freeman's enthusiastic endorsement, the commission hired the former No. 2 official of the Long Beach port, Geraldine Knatz, as executive director of the Los Angeles port. In years past, that might have contributed to the rivalry. But in this case, Knatz, who took over the Los Angeles port in January, has served as a bridge.
Richard Steinke, once Knatz's boss at the Port of Long Beach, said he viewed her departure as a loss to Long Beach but a boon to regional cooperation. "It was our contribution to the greater good," he said.
The colorful Freeman, who at 80 still sports a cowboy hat and speaks in a Tennessee drawl, describes Knatz as "110 pounds soaking wet" and admires her work ethic: "She gets up at 4:45 in the morning, and kicks butt all day." By all accounts, Knatz has energized the Los Angeles port and solidified its relations with her former employer in Long Beach.
Knatz downplays her role in producing the new comity between her current and former employers -- she worked at the Port of Long Beach for 23 years before moving back across the harbor to Los Angeles, where she had worked from 1977 to 1981 -- saying that there were moments of cooperation before her move. The ports, for instance, worked together in the development of the so-called Intermodal Container Transfer Facility in the 1980s and also on the Alameda Corridor in the 1990s. But those strands of common interest were overshadowed by rivalry as the two ports competed for customers and sniped at one another across the bridge between them.
The demand for a comprehensive program on air quality, however, forced the two entities to deal with each other.
"One could gain a competitive advantage over the other if we had different standards," said Steinke, executive director of the Long Beach port.
Instead, the new rules will apply to any company doing business with either port. And the effect of union participation may spread the deal's impact even further, as leaders of the longshoremen's union have pledged to pressure other West Coast ports to adopt similar regulations. There, too, Villaraigosa's mark is evident, as he helped persuade union leaders that tougher environmental standards were important to their workers, since they handle the cargo at the ports and thus are the people most often affected by pollution there.
After this week's announcement of the air quality regulations, labor was quick to offer its support. The proposals, International Longshore and Warehouse Union President James Spinosa said in a statement, deserve to be "replicated at ports all along the West Coast, throughout the U.S. and the world."
The coalition of labor and environmental interests is a hard one to beat in Southern California's current political climate, where the two camps hold the best cards of anyone at the table. Against them, business forces have a harder time being heard. But in this case, the shippers' options are limited.
In the case of the ports, for instance, shippers could move goods through Oakland or Seattle, both major West Coast ports. But those facilities are crowded and much farther from commercially vital Southern California. Instead, long-reticent shippers are giving in to the combined approach of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Only last month, the largest shipping company in the world, Maersk Inc., announced that its vessels that serve California ports would begin burning cleaner fuel. Maersk, which operates the largest container terminal at the Los Angeles port, said it was initiating tests of other air quality improvements.
The company's move broke it from the rest of the industry and offered the potential for gigantic reductions in emissions at the ports. The cleaner fuels produce 90% less sulfur oxide and 73% less particulate matter than the dirty fuels they are replacing.
Moreover, the Long Beach and Los Angeles port operators have attempted to sweeten the deal with a gift to shippers and big labor: Whereas dirty ports are difficult to expand -- neighbors object, local air quality regulations interfere -- cleaner ones may be able to grow, supplying more space for goods and more jobs for those who load and unload ships.
"Neither port has certified an EIR [Environmental Impact Report] for a major project for six years," Knatz said. That stasis has been bad for business as well as labor, as both benefit from a growing port.
Because community opposition has formed around growth that contributes to pollution, the only route toward more business is to do it more cleanly, Knatz and others said.
Altogether, those developments have left longtime observers of the ports impressed by the recent turn of events.
State Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) has been working in and around the ports for more than a decade. In 1992, when he walked his Long Beach district in search of votes for his first City Council campaign, neighbors complained of soot on their windows and voiced fear over the health implications of the air they breathed. He won that race, and since has watched as the two ports fought through lawsuits and over business, elbowing for the honor of being the biggest and cutting deals to make that happen, often at the expense of the other.
But recent events seem more based on a common conception of the ports' mission and responsibility, he said. They suggest the glimmers of real change, not just another ephemeral agreement.
"They have come to realize," Lowenthal said, "that they either sink or swim together."
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From potshots to partnership
Los Angeles operates the nation's largest port, with Long Beach second. Taken together, the side-by-side shipping centers rank as the world's fifth-busiest complex behind Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen, China.
*--* Los Angeles Long Beach Size 7,500 acres 3,200 acres 270 berths 80 berths Top trading China, Japan, Taiwan, China, Japan, partners South Korea, Thailand South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia Top imports Furniture, apparel, toys Machinery, electrical and sporting goods, machinery, vehicles, vehicles and vehicle toys and sports parts, electronics equipment, bedding Top exports Paper products, Machinery, plastic, fabrics, pet and electrical machinery, animal feed, synthetic vehicles, organic resins, fruits and chemicals vegetables
Sources: Port of Los Angeles, Port of Long Beach