If the Port of Long Beach builds its proposed Middle Harbor facility, shipping lines and terminal operators that use it would have to do a lot more than wipe their feet at the door.
Vessels would have to be able to plug into the electrical grid and turn off their auxiliary diesel engines, and yard equipment would have to operate on the cleanest energy. The reason: As planned, Middle Harbor would be permitted to emit no more than half of current pollution levels.
The 10-year, $750-million project would combine two terminals that are too old, inefficient and dirty to meet the port's goals for pollution reduction and greater productivity. It would be the second-most-expensive project in the history of the No. 2 container port in the nation, largely because of measures proposed in the face of threatened lawsuits to force Long Beach and the larger port in Los Angeles to clean up emissions tied to higher rates of asthma and cancer.
The environmental impact report on Middle Harbor was released last week and faces a 50-day public comment period.
Experts say the demands being put on the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports today will spread to harbors nationwide in the future, and that the appeal of cheap goods from Asia will be diluted by the high costs of cleaning up the nation's ports.
"It's happening first here because these are the first two ports to really push their capacity and reach this size," moving about three times as many cargo containers as the No. 3 port, New York/New Jersey, said economist John Husing. "That's a short-term economic and competitive disadvantage, but other ports will be under the same pressure to do what is being done here."
That's certainly the goal of the National Resources Defense Council, which is part of a coalition of community activists, labor and environmental groups that wield considerable influence with the nation's busiest seaport complex.
"We're sensitive to the argument that if we beat up on Los Angeles and Long Beach too much that businesses and their cargo will go someplace else where they are less insistent about environmental protections," said David Pettit, senior attorney and director of the council's Southern California Clean Air Program. He said the organization had visited communities near the New York/New Jersey harbor complex and was in contact with communities near ports including Oakland, Houston and Charleston, S.C.
"We don't want there to be a 'someplace else,' " Pettit said.
The tide may already be shifting against unrestrained growth, no matter how many high-wage jobs are created on the docks and in related inland operations.
Last year the Port of Tacoma, Wash., backed a $17.8-billion voter initiative on major improvements that would have included better rail links between the port and the rest of the U.S., allowing more cargo to be moved. Voters defeated the measure 56% to 44%.
"This is going to be a growing theme. You are not going to expand unless you first ensure that you'll have no additional environmental impact and hopefully a positive impact on health and safety," Husing said.
As planned, Middle Harbor would be a 345-acre terminal capable of handling as many as 3.3 million containers a year, more than most ports around the nation. It would use cleaner tugboats, have low-emission fuel mandates and boast its own electrical substation that would allow vessels to plug in and turn off their engines.
"It's the right thing to do," said Dick Steinke, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, who called the project "an opportunity to implement the kind of 'green' growth initiatives that will be needed to carry us into the future."
There are no guarantees that Middle Harbor will meet with widespread approval. Even with the promised environmental advances, the project leaves resident Angelo Logan skeptical.
Logan, 41, moved to a home in Long Beach six months ago with his wife, Kristen, and his mother, Rebecca.
The Logans thought the area was better than their old East Los Angeles neighborhood, and the house seemed far enough away from the port and close enough to the water to perhaps catch a sea breeze that might push the worst air inland.
Then three months ago, Logan went online to the South Coast Air Quality Management District's Carcinogenic Risk Interactive Map at www2.aqmd.gov/webappl/matesiii and "felt deflated, like I had been punched in the belly" when he found that his 7th Street home fell in a zone with a significantly higher-than-normal risk of cancer deaths from pollution exposure.
The family couldn't afford another move, so Logan quit his job as a mechanic and now serves full time as executive director of the 200-member East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.
Logan's thinking on the matter is pretty straightforward: If someone's an alcoholic, that person isn't necessarily the best one to decide how much he should be allowed to drink.
"What do we have to do to have a port that is truly green? We have to start from there," Logan said. "We're starting from an unacceptably high level, and even cutting it 50% might still be unacceptably high."