Ports unveil cleanup plan

Times Staff Writer

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Tuesday unveiled a $19-million plan to persuade shippers to burn cleaner fuel when vessels are near the California coast, a move expected to slash local air pollution by 11%.

Cargo ships, some of which can emit more diesel exhaust per day than 12,000 automobiles, are responsible for much of the air pollution in the region. They are a leading source of nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and particulate matter, which have been linked to premature deaths, respiratory illnesses and global warming.

The proposal, which may go into effect as soon as July 1, would rely on financial incentives to encourage most of the 5,000 ships that berth at local ports each year to use much cleaner low-sulfur diesel fuels in their main propulsion engines.

For example, the ports would pay the difference between the costs of highly polluting bunker fuel and low-sulfur distillate fuel for as long as a year. The money would be drawn from revenues collected from terminal operators under existing lease arrangements, authorities said.


The incentive program comes after a federal court last month rebuffed attempts by state regulators to impose limits on ship emissions in California waters, saying the state first must seek permission from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The California Air Resources Board is expected to file for such a waiver or appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

“This is a one-year program,” said Long Beach port spokesman Art Wong. “Next year, state regulations are expected to require these ships to use low-sulfur fuel in their main engines.”

To qualify for the incentives, the ships must participate in the ports’ voluntary vessel speed reduction program, limiting speeds to 12 knots during the switch to low-sulfur fuel. They also must burn low-sulfur fuel in their electricity-generating auxiliary engines while at berth.

If successful, the proposal would cut sulfur oxides by 11% and diesel particulate matter by 9% almost overnight.

“This proposal would immediately improve the air quality of Southern California,” said Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster. “It is a collaborative and creative effort to tackle the single largest source of pollution from these two ports and is a big step forward in our efforts to clean the air.”

The proposal was supported by the Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn., an independent trade association representing terminal operators and owners of cargo and passenger vessels.

Although the organization is urging its members to switch to cleaner-burning fuels, association spokeswoman Michele Grubbs said Tuesday that using low-sulfur fuel, which has a higher viscosity than bunker fuel, could create problems for some ships, including “a potential risk of high temperatures that could spark fires.” For some others, the conversion could invalidate engine warranties, she said.

Maersk, the largest shipping line in the world, came up with its own plan for cleaner air. Two years ago, the Danish shipping giant began converting its 37 cargo ships that serve California ports to allow them to use low-sulfur fuel within 24 miles from the coast.


Under increasing pressure from area residents, port authorities and state regulators have been enacting a series of limits on pollution from ships and the trucks and trains that service their cargo.

Those critics came out in force at a local park Tuesday to voice opposition to controversial proposals to expand train yard operations in a west Long Beach area where cancer rates from diesel soot are already among the highest in the state.

John Cross, vice president of the West Long Beach Homeowners Assn. and an organizer of the Silverado Park meeting, said residents were worried about the proposals because railroads “have not been good neighbors in the past.”

When the Union Pacific yard was approved in 1982, port authorities said that its effect on local air quality would be minimal.


Later, “when we went to them with a problem, they said, ‘Call headquarters in Omaha,’ ” Cross said. “Now, they’re coming up with all these ideas about so-called green growth. But if they’re so concerned about pollution, why don’t they clean up the yards they have before building new ones?”

Union Pacific railroad wants to nearly double the number of cargo containers handled annually at its Intermodal Container Transfer Facility. Despite the rise from 725,000 to about 1.5 million containers, Union Pacific officials promise to reduce diesel emissions by 50% by using more efficient equipment, electric cranes and cleaner fuels.

A block away, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is seeking permission to build a 300-acre facility near homes, day-care centers and eight schools.

Burlington is spending close to $1 million a year on lobbyists and public relations firms to push its project, according to Los Angeles City Ethics Commission reports. Similarly, Union Pacific officials have launched their own public relations campaign.


Union Pacific officials said that with technological changes and the pending port and state air restrictions, their facility eventually would reduce pollution. For the near term, however, they acknowledged that doubling truck traffic would increase overall emissions in adjacent neighborhoods.

That kind of talk worried Jesse Marquez, executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment, who was among approximately 100 residents at the meeting.

“In other words, they want to make us a hot spot community and a sacrificial lamb for the region and the state,” he said. “Our target is near zero emissions. We think that is a reasonable goal.”


Times staff writer Janet Wilson contributed to this report.