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Some port truckers face new headaches in clean rigs

The cargo is pretty much the same -- a rusty 40-foot container filled on a recent morning with 50,000 pounds of Asia-bound hay cubes. The trip on a recent Saturday also was unchanged: the few miles between the 51-year-old Los Angeles Harbor Grain Terminal and the TraPac Inc. terminal at the Port of Los Angeles.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Heriberto S. Perez Jr. used to drive an exhaust-spewing 1988 Freightliner that lurched through the streets on the strength of air-polluting diesel fuel. The truck had no air conditioner, a broken window and only a fraction of its original power.

Now he travels to and from the local ports in a sparkling new 2009 Kenworth T800 liquefied natural gas truck with a drive train that derives 95% of its power from natural gas.

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Such a truck never would have been seen at the harbor before October, when the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach launched an ambitious plan to replace 16,800 older rigs by 2012 with the nation’s lowest-emissions fleet.

The Kenworth required just one smooth try to latch on to a container and its chassis, and it pulled away as if the 250-ton load weighed almost nothing. Inside the quiet, almost stylish, air-conditioned cab, there was no hint that 5% of the truck’s power came from diesel fuel. The only odor: the familiar organic compounds known as new car smell.

“After my old truck, which was banned from the ports in October, this feels like I’m driving a Cadillac,” said Perez, of Fontana, who is leasing the rig and at first had to deal with suspicion from his wife when he was no longer coming home smelling like a tailpipe.

“She wanted to know where I had been,” Perez said. “She figured I wasn’t going to work.”

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The truck wasn’t an easy call for Perez, an independent owner-operator responsible for his own rig. If he wants to continue driving to and from the Port of Los Angeles, he’s been told, he will have to become an employee of a certified trucking concession under stipulations of the clean-truck program. That requirement has been challenged in federal court by the American Trucking Assn. and the Federal Maritime Commission.

Last month, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a lower court judge to reconsider her refusal to block the provision requiring all independent owner-operators to become employees. Perez was pleased, preferring the freedom of being his own boss and setting his own hours and rules.

“I have a seven-year truck lease, and what happens if I’m not an employee in five years like they said I have to be? I can’t drive the truck?” Perez said.

In the meantime, Perez drives exclusively for the Los Angeles Harbor Grain Terminal.

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The terminal handles exports -- grains, mostly -- from Midwest farms, transferring them from rail cars to traditional cargo containers for the trip across the Pacific. Pound for pound, however, like most U.S. exports, they are worth only a fraction of the finished-goods imports bound for U.S. store shelves. That makes it difficult for shippers to pay the $70-per-container clean-truck fee that the ports require for cargo hauled by trucks that don’t meet 2007 pollution limits.

Grain terminal Vice President Dwight Robinson had already begun hearing from customers who were considering a switch to the Port of Oakland, which does not yet have a clean-truck fee. Robinson and Grain terminal President Howard Wallace had been huddling with drivers, brainstorming on how they might acquire trucks new enough to be exempt from the fees.

Enter Perez, with a personal credit rating so far north of 700 that he would be the envy of most Wall Street bankers. Armed with a $105,000 grant from the ports’ clean-truck program, Perez came back to Wallace and Robinson with hard numbers on just how much hauling he would need to do to pay off the lease and handle the much higher insurance on the $185,000 Kenworth.

It works out that Perez needs to get more jobs than the other truckers, who drive older rigs. On Saturday, for example, with 13 available drivers, at least three of the 10 jobs scheduled were being held for Perez. So far, it hasn’t caused any friction with the other truckers, Grain Terminal officials say.

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Back at the ports, Perez’s rig doesn’t stand out much among the other trucks. At the TraPac terminal and the nearby SSA Marine terminal, about half the vehicles have that dull primer paintlike finish and faded chrome look typical of older port trucks suffering from long exposure to diesel exhaust and salty air. The other half are an assortment of gleaming new Macks, Sterlings and Kenworths, with the occasional new Volvo sprinkled in.

The difference between old and new is something that can be sensed almost immediately as trucks line up at terminal gates.

When they are new enough to be certified as clean idlers, the fumes are barely perceptible or nonexistent. When the vehicles are older and dirtier, the gunk accumulates in the nostrils, throat and lungs.

“I don’t come home nauseous from all those diesel fumes anymore,” Perez said.

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Although he now sits apart from that in a climate-controlled cab, Perez still has stresses to deal with.

Valid radio frequency identification tags on his truck, which identify him as a qualified driver and notes the status of his truck, sometimes show up as invalid on terminal gate scanners. That kicks him out of the line. Delays at the terminals put him perilously close to missing that crucial number of jobs he has to reach to cover the costs of the new truck.

But he’ll take them, given the benefits he would have never expected at this time last year. Among them, a new truck suspension that means his back no longer feels as if his vertebrae have been rearranged by the end of the day. And the new truck filters out quite a bit of the headache-producing noise of other truck engines, air brakes, rail crossing signals, rail car clanking, locomotives and yard cranes.

“I almost don’t mind waiting anymore -- almost,” Perez said.

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ron.white@latimes.com


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