HERE’S A PUZZLE FOR ANYONE looking to breathe cleaner air in California: Why would the world’s largest shipping conglomerate — one with facilities in more than 100 cities, 35,000 employees and a container ship so big its paint alone weighs as much as 100 elephants — offer to slash its emissions at the Port of Los Angeles? More to the point, why would that shipping company act in defiance of other shipping lines girding up to fight the state air board over less drastic emissions cuts?
Those were the unanswered questions looming over a press conference held May 26 at Pier 400 on A.P. Moller–Maersk’s bustling and high-tech container terminal, where digital overhead signs pointed attendees in the proper direction, sparkling plate-glass windows offered an impressive view of Maersk’s terminal operations at work, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — reveling as always in his mayorness — wore a mint-green tie. (His aides insisted it wasn’t in keeping with any environmental theme. “He’s meeting with [Mexican President Vicente] Fox later,” one of them told me, as we watched the beaming mayor load his snack plate with watermelon while confiding a tip to a Los Angeles Times reporter. “They were worried that I was pro-labor,” I heard him whisper.) Outside the third-floor boardroom, a security guard told me he’d worked in five terminals, and Maersk was “the cleanest, safest and most photogenic.” Once in a while, he admitted, “rats chew through the fiber” and cause electrical problems. Other than that, Pier 400 is a marvel.
The press conference, attended by state and local leaders as well as Maersk executives, had been convened to praise the company for its decision to switch from dirty bunker fuel — the bottom-of-the-barrel crud that fuels most ships — to a lower-sulfur diesel formula within 24 nautical miles of California’s ports. It improves significantly on the rule the Air Resources Board (ARB) announced last December — the one that other shipping companies have been thinking about fighting in court. The ARB rule, out for public comment until June 16, requires only that ships change to cleaner-burning fuel in their auxiliary engines, which power navigational systems and communication and other onboard equipment; Maersk has volunteered to use the fuel even in main propulsion engines.
Maersk says the new fuel will cost twice as much per gallon, but using it will reduce its fleet’s output of toxic particulate matter — the cancer-causing stuff that lodges in human lungs — by more than 70 percent and sulfur dioxide by more than 90 percent. And while Maersk is still a long way from the next step — plugging its ships into shore-side electricity at berth, or “cold ironing” — clean-air advocates at the event were unreservedly happy about Maersk’s decision. “The bottom line is that they’re stepping up,” said the Coalition for Clean Air’s Martin Schlageter. “They’re a dominant force in this industry, and they’re saying to everyone else, ‘You guys play catch-up while regulatory agencies and environmentalists are on your ass.’?”
What makes Maersk’s new plan especially important is that it may serve to nullify some of the industry’s legal challenges to the air board’s auxiliary-engine rule. First practiced on the S-type container ship Sine Maersk outside of Los Angeles on the last day in March, the fuel switch contradicts by example at least two of the shipping industry’s complaints: that low-sulfur fuel is too hard to find and changing fuels at sea isn’t safe.
“We had concerns about availability of low-sulfur fuel,” Maersk’s safety expert, Jim Flanagan, told me, “but we now have sources in Los Angeles and Oakland, and we dedicate a tank on each ship to that fuel,” a retrofit that runs close to $300,000 per ship. “But we have no concerns about safety. If we did, we wouldn’t be doing it.”
It’s also unlikely that the shipping behemoth, which paid a $500,000 fine last fall for falsifying waste-oil disposal records, would have volunteered for the fuel switch had increasingly strict international regulations and local controversy not combined to make “growing cleaner and greener,” as the mayor put it, a good business move globally and locally, where Maersk could stand to improve its karma. When the Port of Los Angeles opened the $340 million, 484-acre Pier 400 in 2002 for the shipping company it wooed away from Long Beach, San Pedro and Wilmington residents raised a fuss over both the size of the project and the terms of the deal. One of them, Stanley Mosler, has sued on the grounds that the city of Los Angeles spent $108 million in federal funds dedicated to constructing a hazardous-facilities terminal on Maersk’s container terminal, a redirection of funds Mosler has argued breaks the law. His lawsuit is asking for $3.6 billion in damages.
T.L. Garrett of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association acknowledges that new laws regulating emissions in Western Europe and the Baltic, which went into effect in May, might have had something to do with Maersk’s initiative, as might increased pressure from California regulators. “This way they maintain some control over what they’re doing instead of being dictated to,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Let us get our solution out there, and gain acceptance for our solution’?” before someone comes along and mandates a solution “[without] understanding the variety and variability in the shipping industry.”
Garrett was adamant, however, that city politics had nothing to do with it.
“Do you mean to tell me you think Los Angeles put pressure on Maersk to clean up?” he asked. I admitted I’d considered the possibility.
“Absolutely not,” he insisted. “Absolutely not.”
ACCORDING TO THE ARB’S LATEST FIGURES, 2,400 people die before their time every year from breathing the air at the state’s ports, a number regulators hope to reduce to 800 by the year 2020, even as volume at the Los Angeles–Long Beach port complex is projected to triple. One would expect more alarm and fewer platitudes over what’s clearly a public-health emergency, but straight talk in the “goods movement” sector is hard to come by. “You can’t drag 800 dead people into the boardroom, so they don’t mean anything,” says Noel Park, president of the San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners Coalition. “They’ve known since 1990 that diesel exhaust causes cancer, and yet here you have this public agency putting the public’s health at risk without any care or concern. Something’s wrong with that. Something’s horribly wrong with that.”
Missing from the event was the man upon whom some community activists have pinned hopes for a cleaner port: S. David Freeman, the Harbor Commission’s new president. Freeman was rumored to have been holed up in a cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains working on his book about alternative energy. The next week, however, he admitted over the phone that he was simply off hiking in the mountains. “I am almost finished with the first draft of my book,” he said, “but in the interest of complete accuracy, I wasn’t working on it in the Smokies.” He also said that while he couldn’t speculate about Maersk’s motives, he thinks the city’s encouragement played a big role. “I like to think,” he said, “that in consulting with top officials in the company, I helped call their attention to the fact that if they could do something voluntary, get great press and get the most popular public official in California today” — Villaraigosa — “to say something good about them, then the port commission’s new president” — Freeman — “would look favorably upon them. They want to expand, and they understand that there is not going to be any expansion of their facilities unless they clean up.” Does that mean the city may in fact mandate cold ironing?
“It means we’re going to require very, very, very stringent standards,” he said, “and I personally don’t care how they get there. If they can live up to them swinging on a trapeze, that’s fine. We’re not going to be prescribing technology. We’re going to be prescribing health standards — make sure we don’t have more than 10 cancers in a million people.
“But I want to make it clear,” he added, “that I’m not trying to presume what motivated them. I’m not a mind reader.”
Some local port activists, however, have no such qualms. “All that land was obtained illegally and under fraud,” contends Jesse Marquez, executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment, a port community activist group based in Wilmington. “Of course Maersk has a reason to look like a good guy now.”
But even Marquez has to agree with what Freeman calls “the most beautiful thing” about the Maersk decision: that “no other shipping line can tell us it can’t be done.”
Noel Park agrees. Maersk’s decision “means a lot,” he says. “It’s exactly what our homeowners association recommended three years ago to the Harbor Commission — that it should recommend to its tenants” that they switch to low-sulfur diesel close to the port. Back then, says Park, “the port staff said it’s impossible. ‘[Marine distillate] is not safe, the flash point’s too high, it doesn’t have enough lubricity, the viscosity’s wrong, have a nice day.’ Now Maersk has come along with this gesture and blown all those arguments out of the water.”
He just hopes that gesture ripples through the industry as everyone says it will. “Maersk has made a big commitment, and God bless ’em for doing it. But the problem is everybody issues press releases and goes back to sleep. Maersk is only a drop in the bucket.”
Marquez says he’s pushing a bill state Senator Alan Lowenthal will make a priority in the next legislative session to require other shipping companies to follow Maersk’s fuel-switching example, which Lowenthal’s office tentatively confirms.
“[Maersk] has begun a new relationship with the community that has not existed in the past,” Marquez says, adding that no existing port has been able to expand its operations since local residents learned to analyze an environmental-impact report. “We’ve been adversaries every inch of the way, but now they know if they want to grow bigger the community has got to be behind them to do that. We applaud them for recognizing that being a good neighbor requires some sacrifice.”
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.