By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
TO MOST PEOPLE LIVING IN LOS ANGELES, the 2,400 premature deaths attributed annually to soot and smog generated by the state’s three ports compete with roadside bombs in Baghdad for relevance: It’s something that happens over there. As one local activist put it, “A lot of people in Los Angeles think San Pedro’s in another country.”
But to people living in the communities close to two of those ports — Long Beach and Los Angeles — that statistic is more real: At community meetings, mothers stand up to recount nights spent in emergency rooms with wheezing children; longshore workers tell of colleagues lost to heart disease. Almost every resident of San Pedro, portside Long Beach and Wilmington has neighbors battling diseases from asthma to lung cancer. And so when the combined local ports released a plan last week to clean up their air, the reaction from the resident activists was less celebratory than wary: “Until you see an absolute series of milestones and deadlines, you don’t really know when — or, quite frankly, if — the corner’s going to be turned,” says Noel Park, who lives in the Palisades area of San Pedro. “And until action’s done on the ground, it’s just a plan on paper.”
The combined ports’ Clean Air Action Plan lays out, in nearly 20 megabytes of summary and technical reports, a collaborative effort between the two San Pedro Bay ports to reduce soot from the ships’ dirty diesel fuel, upgrade trucks that visit the port to newer, cleaner-burning engines and reduce emissions from cargo-handling equipment. Elegantly written and enhanced with color photographs of soaring terns and basking sea lions, the document represents the first time the competing ports have worked together on anything in 77 years. It has been presented to the public and the media as epic and historic, and in some ways it is: It proposes reducing local cancer risk from 5,000 per million to 10 per million, and promises to use the leverage of the ports’ landlord status to force shipping and stevedoring companies to comply with stricter environmental standards.
“It’s probably way more implementable than the last plan,” says Richard Havenick, who sits on the Air Quality Subcommittee of the Port of Los Angeles Community Advisory Committee (PCAC). That last plan was the Los Angeles port’s “No Net Increase” proposal, which failed in both its ambitions and its execution: Not only was reducing air pollution to already-dangerous 2001 levels unacceptable, but the plan had no clear means of requiring emissions reductions from its tenants. The Clean Air Action Plan is “more reasonable,” says Havenick, “because it relies more on leases than other ways of implementation.”
The Clean Air Action Plan even floats the radical idea of purchasing “green power” for both ports’ “respective shore power programs” — which means that one day port ships parked in their berths at the harbor could be powered by the wind and the sun, which will eliminate one source of pollution not just at the ports, but at the coal-burning power plants of Utah and Nevada, which produce half of Southern California’s power.
But as is typical in the ports’ plan, most environmental groups and residents gripe, that lofty goal remains a lofty goal — an idea with no specifics to back it up. “There are no figures, no deadlines and no accountability,” complains Hamlet Paoletti, speaking for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Right now, it’s a fill-in-the-blank plan.”
Even the plan’s greatest strength — its commitment to writing environmental standards into leases — has its downside in that it may allow shipping companies to continue business as usual for too long: While some leases expire in the next five years, others last until the next quarter century, with no negotiations planned for another five years. “The continuation of operations as they are waiting for lease revision is not acceptable,” Havenick says. While the plan devotes much ink to plugging ships into electrical power at berth — “cold-ironing” in Long Beach and “Alternative Maritime Power,” or AMP, in Los Angeles — it could reduce toxic air emissions from ships by up to 90 percent immediately by simply requiring that ships burn clean fuel close to shore.
PCAC has been lobbying the ports for more than three years to require ships to switch from dirty bunker fuel to cleaner-burning low-sulfur diesel fuel as they approach the coast; the California Air Resources Board (ARB) recently made a rule requiring that changeover in the auxiliary engines that power a ship’s lights and navigational equipment. And the world’s largest shipping company, Maersk, voluntarily committed last month to burning low-sulfur diesel within 24 nautical miles of the coast in both auxiliary and propulsion engines. There is, then, no reason for all shipping lines not to make the switch immediately, and Havenick advocates fines to force them.
“I love AMPing. AMPing’s great,” says Havenick. “But low-sulfur fuel is available now.”
As for arguments from the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association and other industry alliances that low-sulfur fuel isn’t yet widely available, Havenick doesn’t care. “I’m sure they have a legitimate complaint,” he says, “but this is a public-health emergency. This isn’t something the ports are doing to make the ports more environmentally acceptable. This is turning around criminal behavior.”