Officials of area ports split over truck issue

Times Staff Writer

For months, officials in Los Angeles and Long Beach have touted plans to jointly combat air pollution generated by their adjacent ports, but a much-vaunted program to replace thousands of polluting trucks has hit a significant snag.

The problem reveals that officials at the cities' ports have sharply differing views on how to treat the 16,500 truckers serving the nation's busiest port complex.

In a move that disappointed environmentalists and Los Angeles port officials, the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners on Friday released a plan to slash truck-related diesel pollution that would allow trucking companies to use employee drivers, independent contractor drivers or a combination -- as they do now. The commissioners are expected to vote on the proposal today.

Environmentalists and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters had hoped Long Beach would take a radically different approach -- that trucking and shipping companies would be compelled to hire the truckers. The burden of owning, operating and maintaining the fleet of cleaner big rigs would fall to the companies.

"Their announcement caught us all by surprise," said Patricia Castellanos, chairwoman of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, an environmental group. "We're all holding out hope that Long Beach will rethink its decision to move forward on Tuesday because it jeopardizes the success of the landmark clean air action plan they approved in 2006."

That plan was approved with much fanfare by both ports, which had viewed each other with distrust for decades.

Last November, when the ports took further steps to implement the plan, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, "For the longest time, we were working on separate tracks. Let's join hands and work together."

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster added, "Long Beach and Los Angeles continue to lead the world in pushing for cleaner air and healthier environment with our shared goal of having the cleanest ports in the world."

But that was November.

Although the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners is still studying the matter, it has expressed interest in the option Long Beach has rejected -- of having trucking companies hire the independent truckers.

That option has the backing of the Teamsters, along with the environmental groups.

"Two entities that have worked together toward cleaner air are not exactly on the same page at the same time," said David Freeman, president of the Los Angeles harbor board. "Even in the best of marriages there is a need for discussion every once in a while when one partner decides to move out a little ahead of the other.

"We're not going to turn aloof from this issue until we have a program that provides a fair shake for the drivers," Freeman added. "We cannot leave these drivers on the short end of the stick."

Becki Ames, chief of staff for Foster, agreed, up to a point. "It doesn't scare us that there is a difference of opinion," she said. "What scares us is not acting to clean the air as quickly as possible.

"If their board is not ready to go yet, fine," she added. "Ours is."

Underlying one element of the dispute are opposing views of a continuing effort to try to unionize the ports' independent truckers.

Change to Win, a Washington, D.C.-based labor coalition has partnered with the Teamsters to expand union membership. The coalition in late December gave $500,000 to Villaraigosa's Prop. S campaign, a $243-million telephone tax passed Feb. 5.

Critics of the employee provision of the clean truck program, however, are concerned that it could be used by the Teamsters as a springboard to launch unionization efforts at ports nationwide.

A less controversial element in the Long Beach plan would make trucking firms register their drivers with the port, and tag trucks with radio-frequency identification devices so authorities could monitor compliance with security, maintenance and insurance requirements.

It would also establish a $2-billion financing plan with three options to help truckers acquire clean vehicles: a lease agreement; a grant for an engine retrofit, and grants for up to 80% of the cost of buying a truck.

A new 18-wheeler costs about $100,000 to $120,000, port authorities said.

"In order to get one of our grants, an operator would have to agree to scrap their old truck," said Long Beach Port spokesman Art Wong. "The goal is to modernize the truck fleet here and ensure we don't push the old trucks into some other community where they would continue to pollute the air."

In a statement, Port of Long Beach Executive Director Richard Steinke described the proposal to be considered today as "the fastest and most effective way to meet our critical environmental objectives and provide the accountability we need for clean air, while giving the trucking industry the flexibility to meet its business challenges."

But David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Long Beach proposal was "just the same old pig with a fresh coat of lipstick."

"It doesn't have any more accountability built into it than the current plan," he said. "The burden won't be on some well-capitalized trucking company, it will be on people taking home eight to 10 bucks an hour."

Long Beach port officials did not dispute speculation that their plan might force some already struggling independent drivers out of business.

"It may bring new people into the industry," Wong said, "but the oldest, dirtiest trucks will be pushed out and scrapped."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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