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.”

TAKEN TOGETHER, THE TWO PORTS of San Pedro Bay handle $300 billion in annual trade; more than 40 percent of all containerized trade in the nation passes through them. By 2020, says the clean-air plan, “economic forecasts suggest that the demand for containerized cargo moving through the San Pedro Bay region will more than double.” Certainly one motive behind cleaning up the ports’ air is to accommodate that growth: Since the South Coast Air Quality Management District confirmed in a study six years ago that port air causes cancer in humans, the plan acknowledges that “both ports have had terminal-development plans challenged and delayed due to concerns about the adequacy of environmental mitigation.” Most dramatically, in 2002, community activists, bolstered by the NRDC and the Coalition for Clean Air, won a court battle against the city of Los Angeles and halted construction on a 174-acre terminal leased to China Shipping. (In a 2003 settlement, construction was allowed to continue on an “AMP-outfitted” terminal so long as the port set aside $50 million for community projects.)

Because of that emphasis on growth and infrastructure in the plan’s language, some local residents wonder whether the ports have really dedicated resources to cleaning up the air or are simply clearing the way for more port expansion.

“When they talk about what they’re going to fund, it’s all about infrastructure,” says San Pedro resident and activist Kathleen Woodfield, “and that usually relates to enabling growth.” She cites a chunk of the plan that talks about things like optical-character-recognition gates at terminals and improved railroad crossings. “I guess they’re finding these things have a residual effect on air quality,” Woodfield says. “But it seems disingenuous to put them in a clean-air plan. Is the real benefit to move the goods faster or to reduce air emissions?”

The public has 30 days to weigh in on the Clean Air Action Plan, and the ports will hold four public workshops in July to allow residents to address port officials with their objections. But many complaints from the community may turn out to be less material and more philosophical, and therefore difficult to resolve in an official document.

If Woodfield could have her way, for instance, there’d be no more invoking the “overriding considerations” clause of the California Environmental Quality Act to “balance” economic gain against public health; no more environmental studies of port operations commissioned by the ports themselves, and no more plans without numbers and deadlines. “My concern,” Woodfield says, “is that we’re going to wind up with a new plan every four years and every time there’s a mayoral change.”

Park, for his part, worries that once industry weighs in, the ports’ good intentions will dissolve. “If you read the reactions in the papers from the [shipping industry] and the railroads, it’s all ‘we have to study this’ and ‘that was all done without our input.’ It’s all code for ‘if it costs any money we don’t want to do it.’ ” If they’re mad enough, they may sue. “And,” says Park, “those guys have more lawyers than Dick Cheney has soldiers.”

LA Weekly