Port in a Storm

Photos by Ted Soqui

THE MAIN DRAG OF WILMINGTON, CALIFORNIA, looks as if someone transformed a 19th-century Eastern seaport village into a latter-day Tijuana but forgot to finish the job. On one corner is a clapboard house built in the style of the Eastern shore of Delaware, where Phineas Banning, Wilmington's founder, was born in the early 1800s. Down the street, a hand-painted sign on a porticoed stucco building festooned with plastic flowers advertises lanteras — tires — and a music store called Ritmo Latino pumps a salsa beat into the night. The wide street is empty of cars at night, but people cluster at the doors of bars and restaurants, making Wilmington feel more south of the border than South Bay.

In the cavernous municipal building, women's laughter eddies like the Pacific Ocean, which is tamed by massive breakwaters and piers at the Port of Los Angeles just a few blocks away.

One of the laughing women is Maria Ortiz. Ortiz, 61, has salt-and-pepper hair and a faint resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor, if Elizabeth Taylor were Mexican and lived in a housing project. Ortiz is meeting with other mothers who are concerned about the effects that air pollution from the Port of Los Angeles is having on their children. Like a lot of local residents, she believes the port, for all the benefits it brings the region and the country, is a plague on her house. For Ortiz, the metaphor is literal. Her son Fernando was diagnosed with asthma when he was 40 days old. In high school, Fernando was on the football team. He wanted to be a boxer, but doctors told him he had to stop playing sports. Vigorous exercise makes asthma worse. So, he went to work in one of the half-dozen refineries whose smokestacks define the sky in the South Bay.

As he reached his 20s, Fernando's asthma grew worse. The nights were the hardest. His lungs closed down, he sweated. In desperation, he would throw open the windows of his room. Says his mother: "He would say to me, 'No puedo, no puedo. No puedo esto, no puedo hacer lo otro. [I can't do this, I can't do that.] Why? Because I'm sick.'" When the asthma interfered with his relationship with his girlfriend, his depression became unendurable.

One winter night, Ortiz heard something clatter to the floor in an upstairs bedroom. She remembers seeing her son's feet as she opened the door. Then she saw the gun he had used to shoot himself.

At first glance, Maria Ortiz and the other Wilmington women do not appear to be formidable opponents for the global interests responsible for the pollution causing health problems in their community. They clean other people's houses. They work in factories. Few speak English. They live in a city that is 85 percent Latino and where at least 26 percent of the population is poor. Their children, or their friends' children, are sick with asthma and other diseases, including leukemia, linked to air pollution from cargo ships and diesel trucks at the rapidly growing Port of Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, suit-and-tie shipping executives pass through a metal detector on their way to conference rooms decorated with nautical memorabilia. The broad-shouldered building that houses the Port of Los Angeles stands like a monument to a sense of unquestioned rectitude last glimpsed in 1950s America. That appearance is deceptive. The Port of Los Angeles is, arguably, the country's largest portal to the 21st century, if the 21st century is defined by globalization. This is the busiest seaport in the U.S., an entrepôt for more than $100 billion in international trade, mostly from the Pacific Rim and Latin America. The nearby Port of Long Beach is the country's second largest port. The two ports combined handle 45 percent of the imports entering the U.S. With the baseball caps and dish racks on their way to Target and Wal-Mart comes an extraordinary amount of air pollution.

The pollution is from foreign ships that use high-sulfur fuel; heavy-duty, diesel-powered "yard goats" that haul containers onto truck beds; and an estimated 34,000 trucks that arrive at both ports daily. The Port of Los Angeles has become the largest single source of diesel pollution in the L.A. basin. Diesel emissions are known to cause cancer, lung disease, heart disease, spontaneous abortion, birth defects and infant mortality. Diesel accounts for 70 percent of the pollution-caused cancer risk in the region, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Given the port's expansion fever and history of unchecked growth, the air blowing inland from Los Angeles Harbor could get worse before it gets better. For years, port officials have contended that air pollution isn't their responsibility; that it's the terminal operators, the shipping lines, and the Wal-Marts and Targets who need to clean up their operations.  

A Los Angeles appellate court recently found otherwise, handing a lawsuit victory to community members represented by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a national environmental organization with offices in Los Angeles. The lawsuit was aimed at forcing the port to mitigate the environmental effects of the newly constructed $47 million China Shipping terminal.

"The court decision proves that growth doesn't have to come at the expense of the public's health," said NRDC attorney Gail Ruderman Feuer. "There had been a perception that pollution was a cost of doing business, but, in fact, it resulted from years of the port skirting environmental laws."

The NRDC suit came about after port officials asked the city in 2001 for an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a law that requires major projects to undergo environmental review and to address environmental consequences of the project. The China Shipping terminal the port officials wanted to build would eventually cover 174 acres. They told City Council members that the requirements of CEQA had been met by two earlier environmental studies. One of these studies had reached the astonishing conclusion that a new terminal would reduce air pollution by bringing in larger ships.

At the time, the port's request received little attention. San Pedro is at the southernmost edge of the sprawling city of Los Angeles; for most people, it is simply off the map. There was a protest or two from progressive City Council members, but on the advice of then-City Attorney James Hahn, the council approved the port's request.

When construction began, San Pedro residents, alarmed by yet another in a series of major port expansions, contacted the NRDC. Its attorneys fought for nearly two years to force the port to conduct a more comprehensive review of the environmental effects of the China Shipping terminal, which will bring 260 new container ships and more than 1 million trucks a year into a region already beset by severe air pollution.

An appellate court finally decided in favor of the environmentalists in October, shutting down construction of the project's first phase, a 1,200-foot wharf. To paraphrase the judges, the port's attempt to pass off environmental reviews of previous projects as adequate for the China Shipping terminal was little more than an exercise in paper shuffling.

Two weeks ago, the court approved a settlement in which the Port of Los Angeles agreed to establish a $50 million fund to control pollution from existing port facilities and improve the nearby communities of Wilmington and San Pedro. In addition, the port will electrify the dock at the China Shipping terminal and pay up to $5 million to help China Shipping retrofit its cargo ships so they can plug in to electric power, a process called "cold-ironing." In exchange, the port will be able to finish construction of the wharf, which is already 90 percent built. According to the terms of the settlement, the port still has to complete a review of the wharf and terminal under CEQA, which will almost certainly result in further mitigation. The final bill could reach $100 million, according to the NRDC's Ruderman Feuer.

Nicholas Tonsich, an attorney appointed by Mayor Hahn to head the harbor commission as part of a much-touted effort to reform the port, said he welcomes the settlement. "This settlement allows the port to do what we've wanted to do anyway, to work with the community," said Tonsich. "It's a win-win situation."

Tonsich acknowledges that there are problems at the port. But he says that port officials have learned their lesson. "I can assure you that it won't happen again," he said. "I can assure you that no lease will be signed without proper environmental review."

Despite Tonsich's assurances, a memorandum of understanding between the port and the Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine Corp. leaked to the L.A. Weekly suggests that it may take more than a single lawsuit to force the port to change its approach. The confidential memo, dated November 24, 2002 — a month after the port was trounced in court by NRDC lawyers — promised 137 acres to Evergreen but included an escape clause in case the project doesn't meet environmental standards. By March, though, the port still had not made the agreement public, so there was no way for citizens or environmentalists to weigh in on the air-quality questions raised by yet another expansion. This is typical of the port's culture of secrecy, says Ruderman Feuer.  

Now, federal authorities are investigating Pier 400 terminal, the port's biggest project prior to the China Shipping terminal, which was begun in 1992. Brian Moore, the chief of programs and project management at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Southern California, confirmed that the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command is investigating whether the port violated the law when it built the terminal by putting the expansion of container facilities ahead of community safety concerns.

Critics say that under the regime of port executive director Larry Keller, the Port of Los Angeles has made attracting new business a top priority. "Keller adopted the approach of, 'We'll promise you everything, then we'll lock the door and figure out how to do it later,'" said a former high-level port official, who asked to remain anonymous.


THE UNDERREPORTED STORY OF UNfettered global capitalism is the way it turns the First World into the Third World. For example, though they are right next door, Wilmington and San Pedro have been growing apart for decades. Wilmington is so poor that one neighborhood was actually known as the Third World until the Alameda Corridor rail line displaced its junkyards and rooster coops. Yet San Pedro residents note with humorless irony that the main drag of downtrodden Wilmington, with its taco stands and bad-credit furniture stores, is more vibrant than the depressed downtown of their white, middle-class community.

Globalization, it seems, is rife with equal opportunity for aspiring slums. Just a few decades ago, San Pedro was a thriving cannery town and home to a fishing fleet. In downtown Wilmington, film stars stayed overnight at the Don Hotel before boarding the ferry to Catalina Island. Both cities, according to urban planner Rafique Khan of the Community Redevelopment Agency of San Pedro, derived their identities from the waterfront.

Today, both are textbook examples of urban blight. Port expansion has fenced off much of the access to water. In a fashion endemic to Los Angeles, the port's industrial landscape has intruded on neighborhoods. Despite Wilmington's salsa beat and San Pedro's manicured lawns, both cities have the half-starved look of stray dogs. This is not simply a matter of wealth, but of the coherence that comes from a balance between housing and commerce. When both are rooted in the natural landscape, something ineffable is created: a sense of place.

What the South Bay has instead is the country's largest container shipping port. Since the 1950s, when containerization transformed the shipping industry, bigger has been better. In the 1980s and 1990s, the explosive growth of trade in the Pacific Rim exacerbated the trend toward economies of scale at the port. It is not the expansion itself, but what is perceived as the port's ruthlessness that has angered members of the community. Locals point to Knoll Hill, a bluff overlooking the harbor, where two besieged families live next to a port-owned dog run that looks like it has been used for target practice by Air Force bombers. They say the port bought the other houses, rented most of them to unsavory tenants, and then tore them down, hoping to raze the hill itself to expand its container facilities.

As the port grew, so did pollution. Ships are the worst offenders, producing 60 percent of the port's diesel pollution. On average, 16 ships call at the port every day, generating more smog-forming gases than 1 million cars. But the estimated 34,000 diesel trucks that arrive each day at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach pose a more complicated problem. After Reagan-era deregulation broke the back of the Teamsters, so-called "independent operators" came to dominate trucking. These truckers are usually Latino and non-unionized; their old semis are among the most-polluting trucks on the road. Because of congestion during peak hours, a truck with 800,000 miles of road wear may idle for as much as 10 hours waiting for containers to be loaded. On a day like this, a trucker may clear as little as $10 after expenses. It is a bad deal for everyone — except the port, the terminal operators, and the Wal-Marts and Targets that pay rock-bottom rates for transportation.

Business at the Port of Los Angeles is expected to double by 2010 and triple by 2020. The Alameda Corridor, the newly constructed $2.4 billion rail line that links the port to inland rail yards, can handle only a fraction of the projected increase. Analysts forecast that by 2020 there will be 92,000 trucks moving in and out of the ports each day. Upgrading the I-710 freeway to accommodate this increased traffic is estimated to cost $5 billion. Nobody knows where the money will come from.  

As port expansion threatens to increase pollution, air-quality officials in January announced that Los Angeles is lagging way behind in meeting federal deadlines to reduce diesel emissions. Diesel engines do not burn fuel as completely as regular engines. Partially burned diesel exhaust contains tiny particles laced with toxic chemicals, including some too small to be stopped by the body's defense mechanisms. As sophisticated monitoring has yielded new information about the health effects of diesel, pressure has mounted on regulatory agencies to crack down.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a 2006 deadline for controlling diesel pollution. If Los Angeles is going to meet this deadline, the port will not only have to control new sources, such as the China Shipping terminal, but also must reduce the amount of pollution it currently produces.

Yet nothing seems to stop the port from growing. The port's growth is based on the explosive growth of Southern California itself; an estimated 40 percent of the goods brought into Los Angeles Harbor are sold regionally. "They are bombarded with cargo," said George Cunningham, editor of The Cunningham Report, a shipping-industry newsletter. "It's simply more cost-efficient to bring goods closer to where they're going to be sold."

Port environmental official T.L. Garrett made the point more succinctly: "You want to stop shipping?" Garrett asked. "Stop going to Target."

Those kinds of fighting words are not unusual in the South Bay. People in San Pedro and Wilmington talk of the "hundred years war" they've been waging with the port. In one famous example of hostilities, the president of the San Pedro homeowners association introduced himself at a Harbor Commission meeting and spoke of his desire for a new era of "two-way" communication, only to be told by then-Harbor Commission president Ted Stein: "I don't believe in two-way communication."

In her successful 2001 City Council run, Janice Hahn, the sister of Mayor James Hahn, campaigned on the promise that words like these would never again be spoken by a harbor commissioner.

It was not words, though, but deeds that caused the war to escalate. Since the early 1980s, community members had been pressuring the port to store oil and gas out in the harbor, away from their homes and businesses. There are four oil refineries in Wilmington alone, and nearly everyone who grew up in the area has a traumatic memory of a refinery explosion.

Eddie Mora: The possible human
toll of port’s success

In the early '90s, the port seemed to be complying with the community's wishes. In 1992, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began dredging an 81-foot-deep ship channel for oil tankers, which require channels deeper than the 55-foot channels used by ordinary cargo ships. The port used the dredged materials to build a 484-acre terminal called Pier 400. The new terminal would not only provide safe storage for oil and gas, but would also be used for a new container-shipping facility.

It looked good on paper. But in 1998, port officials were already negotiating to lease virtually all of Pier 400 to Maersk, one of the largest container-shipping companies in the world. Not only did Maersk take over most of the space slated for oil and gas, the port also promised to provide Maersk with an additional 200 acres of landfill.

The broken promise to the community was bad enough, but the port may have compounded that with a possible breach of contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps is prohibited from dredging for the purpose of creating landfill. But since the channel dredged by the Corps for oil tankers is not being used and there's only 20 acres available to consolidate oil and gas storage, it now appears that the sole purpose of the $108 million, taxpayer-funded dredging project was creating a new commercial terminal to be used by Maersk. In addition, the port may have violated a contract with the federal government requiring the port to relocate and consolidate oil and gas on the southern portion of Pier 400.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials would not comment on the nature of the investigation into Pier 400, although they did confirm that it is ongoing. But community members who have supplied information to investigators believe that the Army is focusing on these questions. One former port employee had harsh words for Keller's administration. "It's not good management, it's not good policy, it's a giveaway," he said of the port's broken promise to store flammable materials on Pier 400. "They saw the opportunity, didn't consider the ramifications, and just did it."  

Community members also believe that Keller had a conflict of interest on the Maersk deal, pointing to the fact that Maersk helped Keller buy a house in Long Beach's Italianate canal neighborhood near Belmont Shores when the company relocated him to California in the mid-1990s. When the port hired him in 1996, Keller reported Maersk's co-ownership of his house as a potential conflict of interest. But Keller and his former employer remained joint tenants of the property until December 1998.

Keller himself acknowledged the possibility of a conflict in an October 13, 1998, letter to port staff recusing himself from negotiations with Maersk.

More than a month earlier — in a letter dated September 3 — Keller submitted the port's mostly agreeable responses to Maersk's requirements for Pier 400. "I hope that you will both be pleased with the results, detailed in the attached," wrote Keller to J.D Nielsen, Maersk's chief operating officer. "I am confident that the Port of Los Angeles and its new Pier 400 terminal will meet your current requirements and long-term goals."

Keller denied participating in negotiations with Maersk prior to recusing himself. "No, absolutely not," he told a reporter. "At the time, I approached Ted Stein. I said, 'Ted, I really need to recuse myself from this. That means you and our director of marketing need to be the team.'"

Jesse Marquez: One of Port
of L.A.’s leading watchdogs

It would be naive to think that Keller gave special favors as a simple quid pro quo to his former employer. But critics like Noel Park, president of the San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners Coalition, say that Keller has been too eager to please the shipping companies at the expense of the environment and the community. Besides, Park says, Southern California is such an important market for foreign goods that the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles don't need to make such compromises to attract business.

Global trade creates a heady, adrenaline-charged environment, one that offers city-funded trips to Europe for port officials, including Keller and Stein, who flew to Denmark in May 2000 to celebrate the final contract on Pier 400 with Maersk. The trip included a stopover in Paris "for business-development activities."

Paris is a long way from the Little Company of Mary SubAcute Care Facility in Torrance. This is where Eddie Mora, who is 64, is going to stay, hooked up to a machine that helps him breathe, until he dies. Eddie found out that he had lung disease on his honeymoon. He had dated Cecelia Linda on and off for 30 years, but didn't propose until four years ago, when he got jealous after seeing her with a younger man. They were in San Diego en route to Mexico when Eddie became short of breath. Cecelia rushed him to the emergency room. It would not be the last time she saw the inside of a hospital with Eddie.

Four months after his marriage, Eddie Mora was confined to a hospital. After a tracheotomy that saved his life, he lives permanently tethered to a ventilator. Eddie Mora was predisposed to lung disease because he has scoliosis. But living in Wilmington may have made the difference between Eddie living in the hospital attached to a ventilator like a dog on a leash and being able to live at home with his wife, says Dr. John Miller, an emergency-room physician who lives in San Pedro.

Paris is also a long way from the small, crowded San Pedro apartment where 11-year-old Juan Carlos Piceno lives with his mother. Like Maria Ortiz's son Fernando, Juan Carlos likes to play football. But doctors are telling him it's a bad idea; Juan Carlos is already taking four different medications for asthma.

Now his mother, Carol, who is single, says that she's been diagnosed with asthma, too. "I'm the only one he has," she says, nodding at her son. "What would he do if something happened to me?"

Even though Maria Ortiz's surviving children are healthy adults now, she shows up at community meetings and testifies at hearings with Carol Piceno. "There are a lot of children suffering with asthma and bronchitis. I have to fight so they don't suffer," Ortiz said.

Many of these illnesses could have been avoided. In contrast to most environmental problems, which often seem hydra-headed and intractable, solutions to the port's problems exist, according to the NRDC's Gail Ruderman Feuer. Alternative-fuel vehicles, electric rail lines, better management of truck traffic and forcing big docking container ships to plug in to electric power can substantially reduce air pollution from the port. The settlement signed just a few weeks ago will accomplish many of these goals, making the China Shipping terminal something close to a model for the port.  

But China Shipping is just one terminal in a massive industrial facility. Changing the culture of the port may prove to be a difficult task. The problems at the port are not unique to Los Angeles. Historically, ports have been freewheeling city-states where commerce is the central government and the usual rules do not apply. This cultural predisposition seems to have been exacerbated by the deal-making fever that has gripped the port in the past decade.

In an interview last week, Harbor Commission president Nick Tonsich acknowledged as much when asked if the port could change its ways without major personnel changes taking place first. Tonsich said: "We're going to step back and try to analyze that." Referring to the recent China Shipping settlement, he added: "We have a window to do that now."

With or without a regime change, sweeping reform could be on the way to Los Angeles Harbor. State Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal, who sponsored a recent state law aimed at streamlining truck traffic in the port, is planning to hold hearings to determine whether the Port of Los Angeles should become more accountable to a state agency, perhaps the Coastal Commission or the state lands department.

If that means the same rules would apply to the port that apply to the rest of First World America, that would be fine with harbor-area activists like Jesse Marquez, who heads a citizens' group in Wilmington and has spent the last year and a half trying to make sure that his community doesn't get left out of efforts to reform the port.

"The Port of Los Angeles has never conducted one air-quality study in Wilmington and has never conducted one health study," says Marquez. "We don't see any of the benefits of international commerce, but we bear the burden of all the negative environmental and social and health impacts."


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