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Long Beach OKs fee on cargo to fund green efforts

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

After years of unsuccessful attempts, the Long Beach Harbor Commission on Monday approved a $1.6-billion tax on cargo to raise money to combat air pollution and clear the way for expansion projects.

The “special cargo fee” will help subsidize a fleet of newer, cleaner short-haul diesel trucks at port terminals, but it has come under fire from truck drivers who say they cannot afford to operate modern, cleaner-running models.


FOR THE RECORD:
Long Beach port: An article in Tuesday’s California section, about the Long Beach Harbor Commission approving a tax on cargo to help subsidize cleaner diesel trucks, misspelled Long Beach Harbor official Mario Cordero’s last name as Cardero. It also said he is executive director of the Port of Long Beach. He is president of the Long Beach Harbor Commission. —


Port authorities acknowledged that the fee may ultimately increase the cost of goods shipped by container. However, they also contend they cannot continue to move goods, or expand terminal operations, without reducing health risks of air pollution, linked to 2,400 deaths a year.

The Port of Los Angeles is scheduled to consider a similar fee Thursday. The president of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, David Freeman, indicated Monday that the “dirty truck” fee would be easily approved. The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports currently handle 40% of the goods imported into the United States.

Pressure to slash port-related pollution has been motivated in part by the increase in trade at the two ports, as well as studies showing that the ports account for 25% of the diesel particulate emissions in the Los Angeles Basin, and more particulate-forming nitrogen oxide emissions than all 6 million cars in the region.

Beginning June 1, 2008, a $35 charge will be placed on every loaded 20-foot equivalent cargo container entering or leaving the Long Beach port by truck. Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cardero expects the fee to generate $1.6 billion by 2012 to help fund a less-polluting green fleet.

“Today’s vote will ensure that, in a short time, only the cleanest trucks will operate at the ports,” Cardero said. “The next step will be to work with the trucking industry and other stakeholders to coordinate a smooth transition to a cleaner truck fleet.”

“There are no other ports in the nation that come close to what we’re doing on the environmental front,” Cardero told more than 200 people who attended the hearing at the Port of Long Beach headquarters. “We’ve got to grow green.”

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster agreed. “This tariff is an important milestone for our community,” he said in a statement. “It puts the costs for cleaner air where it belongs -- on the prices of goods sold.”

Earlier on Monday, however, more than 150 of the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex’s 16,000 mostly low-income, Spanish-speaking independent contract truckers gathered at the entrances of five terminals to express this concern: Even though the program would help underwrite the purchase of the new vehicles, they cannot afford to maintain trucks with computer-controlled engines requiring overhauls every three to five years.

Many truckers earn about $8 an hour and rely on friends and “curbside” mechanics for discount repair work. Blowing whistles and holding up signs, the protesting truckers said they want trucking companies to buy the new trucks and hire them to drive the rigs.

“We all support cleaner air, but none of us wants a loan or a grant to buy a new truck,” said truck driver Miguel Pineda, 37, of Lynwood. “If these plans become law, I won’t be able to put food on the family table.”

Environmentalists have been pushing for container fees for three years. Facing a likely veto by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) agreed in September to set aside a proposal to impose a $60 charge on each loaded 40-foot container to help ease port congestion and air pollution. A year earlier, Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill by Lowenthal.

Siding with shipping and retail industries, Schwarzenegger said he was opposed to a container fee because it could have hurt U.S. exports by raising shipping costs and did not provide for public-private partnerships that could increase funding for port and transportation projects.

Port authorities believe they have the authority to exercise their rights as landlords and impose the tax.

The Long Beach commission’s action followed the November approval by the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports of a phased ban on old, dirty diesel trucks. That plan calls for replacing the entire fleet with models that meet 2007 pollution standards by 2012.

The truck ban and container fees are critical portions of the landmark Clean Air Action Plan endorsed by both ports a year ago as part of a strategy to reduce truck diesel emissions by 80%. In January, the ports are expected to vote on perhaps the most crucial and controversial piece: setting standards for port control over trucking companies, and who should own and maintain the new trucks.

Trucking companies and shippers have argued that the ports lack the legal authority to force them to purchase the fleet, which would begin depreciating in value almost immediately. If they were compelled to employ 16,000 drivers, the firms say, they would be vulnerable to union organizing.

Environmental groups led by the Natural Resource and Defense Council, however, support a proposed concession system that would put drivers on company payrolls. “This is the most sustainable and accountable system for fixing the broken trucking system,” Adrian Martinez, a defense council attorney, told the Long Beach commissioners.

Nonetheless, critics on all sides of the issue are growing frustrated by continuing delays of the Clean Air Action Plan, which was supposed to have been in place nearly a year ago.

In an interview, Monday, Rupal Patel of an environmental group called Communities for Clean Ports, echoed the sentiments of many people at Monday’s hearing. “The ports’ claims of proceeding in good faith loses spirit with each delay,” she said, “because the situation is so dire.”

louis.sahagun@latimes.com


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