In many respects, California leads in the nation in attempts in reduce air pollution: anti-smog rules, unleaded gasoline, catalytic converters for cars -- all of them were pioneered by the Golden State before gaining nationwide acceptance. Yet despite those efforts, California’s largest city, Los Angeles, is famous for its bad air quality, for decades the worst in the nation.
L.A.’s air pollution problems all boil down to people and ports. California’s efforts to clean up the air were never enough to keep pace with population growth, which kept putting more cars on the road. Pretty much everyone understands that part of the problem -- all you have to do is look at the city’s clogged highways. But the other side has to do with vast structural changes to the U.S. economy over the last quarter-century. Instead of manufacturing products in the heartland, Americans now ship the vast majority of their consumer goods from overseas, especially Asia. That means factory smokestacks have been replaced by tens of thousands of smaller exhaust pipes belonging to ships, trains, cranes, and trucks.
The scale of international shipping is staggering, doubling every decade, and it is disproportionately funneled through the neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Together the two form the largest port complex in the world outside of Asia, handling 40 percent of the seaborne cargo entering the U.S. More than 5,000 ships per year offload their shipments onto trains and trucks (well, mostly trucks: 80 percent of what the industry terms "goods movement" at the ports is done by trucks, which make up to 40,000 trips per day).
All this traffic translates into 30 percent of the L.A. area’s air pollution. But it isn’t spread evenly around the region. Instead, the mostly lower-income and minority communities around the ports are plagued by a concentrated miasma of diesel exhaust, while wealthier neighborhoods far away don’t have to deal with the pollution caused by the shipment of their luxury goods. A visible chemical pall often hangs over the area near the ports, stinging the eyes and throat. Some residents call it the "diesel death zone," and state health officials agree, declaring diesel exhaust a carcinogen in 1998. Indeed, 71 percent of the cancer risk from air pollution in California comes from diesel, a risk tightly concentrated around ports and rail yards.
Particulates in diesel exhaust cause asthma, reduced lung function, and damaged lung development in children. Children living in heavily polluted areas have five times the risk of impaired lung function than those in cleaner places. In effect, families living near the ports and rail yards are subsidizing our global economy with damage to their lungs. (I wrote about all of this in a 2007 feature story for OnEarth, "Dark Side of the New Economy.")
In October 2002, seeking to stop more air pollution and health damage, community advocacy groups sued the Port of Los Angeles under California environmental law over its plans to massively expand the China Shipping Company container terminal. The port hadn’t even bothered to prepare an environmental impact report. Represented by lawyers from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which publishes OnEarth, the community groups won an injunction, then reached a settlement: a $50 million fund for environmental mitigation projects in and around the port, and an unprecedented commitment by the port to replace diesel fuel for docked ships and loading equipment with electrical power, which produces less air pollution.
"It was a huge wake-up call," recalled Melissa LinPerella, an attorney in NRDC’s Santa Monica office, looking back at the case’s influence over the ensuing decade. "The industry realized that we had the potential to hurt the ports’ bottom line. No one had ever stopped the ports in their tracks before." In 2004, the coalition stopped the expansion of Pier J at the Port of Long Beach without even suing, convincing the Long Beach city council that the port’s environmental impact review wouldn’t stand up in court.
The two victories signaled that diesel pollution, which had been largely unregulated by EPA and state authorities until then, would no longer go unchallenged by community advocates and environmental activists. The ports halted and reassessed every expansion project in the works, knowing that the rules of the game had changed. Seeing the negative health impacts of the burgeoning industry on people, especially children, researchers at local universities began releasing a stream of studies documenting diesel as a major public health issue. The science gave new urgency to the long-ignored voices of the portside communities, turning a seemingly localized problem into a major regional environmental justice issue, as well. Elected officials, facing community demands, sought ways to reconcile the ports’ growth and the economic boost it brought with the public’s health.
What resulted was an unprecedented synergy between advocates, scientists, regulators, and the politicians who oversee the publicly owned ports. "There was mounting community pressure, political will, and science all coming together at a good time," LinPerella told me. In 2004, Los Angeles mayor Jim Hahn pledged to increase the size of the port as much as fourfold without increasing pollution: a pledge known as No Net Increase. A task force including environmental and community groups, regulators, scientists, politicians, and industry sought new ways to move beyond the conventional dirty diesel engine. Financial incentives, demonstration projects on the docks, newer ships, and a tech incubator for new electrical trucks and handling equipment were set up. In 2008, the ports announced a Clean Trucks program, replacing older, more-polluting short-haul trucks with cleaner, new ones. The results have already been felt -- truck emissions have been reduced by 80 percent, by the ports’ accounting (there remain some questions about whether the location and extent of air quality monitoring is sufficient). Yet there can be no doubt that the China Shipping case began a process of change that will, if it is aggressively pursued, help clear the air over L.A.
Similar programs are being studied by the ports of Oakland, Seattle, New York/New Jersey, Houston, and the Everglades, though "none of them have gone to the lengths that L.A. has," says LinPerella, in part because they are not forced to deal with the severe regional air quality regulations that L.A. must, including the threat of cuts to federal highway funds for non-compliance. "It might be some time before we clean up all of our ports," she allowed. And yet, "it’s safe to say that ports across the country have been watching the Port of L.A. and wondering what will pass muster in the courts. The ports know they have to start addressing environmental concerns, or at least not pretend that they don’t exist."