Local ports initiate antipollution program

Times Staff Writers

A landmark pollution-control program at the nation’s busiest port complex was launched Wednesday with an immediate ban on 2,000 of the region’s diesel-spewing big rigs and few reports of backups or unusual delays in the flow of cargo.

An estimated 95% of the trucks lining up for the starting 8 a.m. shift at the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach had stickers on their windshields and doors indicating that they were in compliance with new rules restricting access to the gateway for 40% of the nation’s imported goods. Trucks without stickers were turned away.

Against a backdrop of cargo ships docked beside massive cranes, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster held a news conference to inaugurate the Clean Truck Program forged by environmentalists, drivers, shippers, community leaders and the ports during two years of contentious debates and legal challenges.

“Ports across the world have their eyes on us as a model for the future because today the cornerstone of the world’s most comprehensive plan to clean up a major port hits the road,” Villaraigosa said. “We will not disappoint them, nor will we disappoint all the Angelenos who suffer from emphysema, throat cancer and mouth cancer caused by this pollution.”

Later, port authorities and reporters gathered at a nearby Port of Los Angeles recycling yard to witness the crushing and scrapping of two trucks barred by the program. Among the onlookers was Jorge Sibrian, 57, a port trucker since 1992 and former owner of one of the rigs that was ripped to pieces by a massive iron claw, then shredded into scrap metal.


Wearing a blue hard hat and safety goggles, Sibrian nodded toward the wreckage and said, “That’s my baby. I had her 12 years. She’s been everywhere.”

“Everything comes to an end, and this is the end for her,” added Sibrian, who sold the truck to the Los Angeles port for $5,000. “Hopefully, it’s for a good cause.”

Under the program’s first phase, trucks built before 1989 were banned as of Wednesday. When fully implemented in 2012, only trucks meeting 2007 emissions standards will be allowed to enter the ports.

Although the ports met their Oct. 1 deadline, two critical components of the program were missing. An electronic vehicle-monitoring system was not in place, and the ports had yet to start collecting the $35 per-cargo-container fee that is supposed to fund the $1.6-billion truck replacement program.

And a related effort to curb port pollution has been put on hold. On Tuesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the multibillion-dollar proposal, arguing that the related cargo fees would harm an already suffering economy.

The measure, SB 974 by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), would have allowed the collection of $60 for each 40-foot container that moved through the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach or Oakland. The $400 million raised annually would have gone into reducing traffic congestion and putting cleaner-burning engines in trucks and trains.

On Wednesday, truck traffic was lower than normal because the economic slowdown has hit the ports in dramatic fashion. Through August, overall container traffic at the Port of Long Beach was down 9.9% compared with the same period last year. That included a 12.8% drop in imported goods. Overall traffic at the Port of Los Angeles was down 4.6%, including a 7.2% drop in imports.

Fearing a traffic jam of trucks and drivers being turned away in droves, trucker Eduardo Valladares arrived early enough to be second in line at a Long Beach terminal. He was pleasantly surprised.

“This is not so bad,” said Valladares, 40, who drives a battered blue Freightliner. “At least I can work today.”

The program’s goal is to rid local skies of tons of carcinogenic pollution and particulates and to persuade environmentalists to stop raising legal objections to expansion projects designed to meet future growth at the ports.

The ports’ fleet of about 16,800 trucks account for more smog and soot than all 6 million cars in the region, and their diesel emissions cause 1,200 premature deaths annually, according to the California Air Resources Board. Asthma rates among children living in neighborhoods near the ports are double the national average, and dock workers and drivers face significantly higher risks of lung and throat cancer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and local studies.

“My hat is off to the mayors who transformed talk of cleaning the air into action,” said Martin Schlageter, campaign director of the Coalition for Clean Air. “Powerful institutional forces representing billions of dollars had for years urged that the ports not do anything. But the mayors and the ports stood firm.”

The program, which is a key component of the Clean Air Action Plan designed to slash overall emissions at the ports by 45% by 2012, was hotly contested by the nation’s largest trucking association. Now, an ongoing Federal Maritime Commission investigation looms over the program.

The investigation, which commission officials warned could lead to a cease and desist order that would send the ports back to the drawing boards, would address whether the Port of Los Angeles violated federal maritime regulations and practices by insisting that trucking firms hire port drivers as employees. The Port of Long Beach adopted a plan that allows both independent operators and employee truckers to access its terminals.

Ports from San Diego to Seattle have expressed an interest in adopting similar programs to get cleaner-burning trucks on the road. However, some shipping interests believe the concept may be a hard sell elsewhere.

“You’re seeing an aggressive approach at these ports because of the overall air quality concerns of that region, the magnitude of the cargo they have to move, and because of community concerns about health,” said Meredith Martino, manager of government relations and environmental policy for the American Assn. of Port Authorities. “But those are not the top priorities of every port.”

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes the Port of Los Angeles, would disagree.

“No longer do we have to decide whether we can have good jobs or good health,” she said. “Today, we can have both.”