Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

Trucks inch along Etiwanda Boulevard in Mira Loma, puffing diesel smoke
as they jerk forward in heavy traffic. Low-slung warehouses bearing names like
Wal-Mart, Black & Decker, Costco and Honda cover the farms and dairies that once
thrived here along the banks of the Santa Ana River as recently as the mid-1990s.

Above Etiwanda, trains rumble across a bridge to a Union Pacific rail yard to deliver shiny new cars that will be transferred to trucks and whisked on their way to auto dealerships. Locomotives idling permeate the adjacent Field of Dreams youth sports complex with cancer-causing exhaust as students walk home from nearby Jurupa Valley High School.

Mira Loma in western Riverside County is but one small pocket of Southern California’s so-called logistics industry, which has exploded in the wake of international trade agreements in the 1990s, including GATT and NAFTA. The agreements have brought a rising tide of cheap imports and are to blame for blanketing wide areas of the region under a cloud of toxic diesel exhaust from the armada of ships, trucks and trains that move goods through the ports to inland warehousing centers and on to big-box retailers in California and across the nation.

Since 1998, shipments through the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — the biggest in the nation — have doubled and are projected to quadruple in the next 20 years. Diesel emissions will increase dramatically unless major steps are taken to control them. Yet nobody has figured out how to reduce this health menace. The best proposal on the table is the Port of Los Angeles’ “no net increase” plan, which simply aims to keep the problem from worsening as shipments through its terminals grow.

Simply maintaining the status quo, and hoping the skies clear, is a planning and health disaster. “No net increase is not good enough,” says Ed Avol, a researcher at USC's Keck School of Medicine, who points out that the ill health created by emissions associated with international shipping is already unacceptably high.

“If we don’t address the pollution from goods movement, it’s game over for cleaning up the air in Southern California,” says Barry Wallerstein, executive director of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD). “We need a revolution, not an evolution.”

Logistics has become a bigger source of air pollution in Southern California than any other industry, Wallerstein says, and while emissions from other sources are declining or static, pollution from trucks, ships, trains and other equipment used by the industry is growing by leaps and bounds.

Medical-care bills alone from those emissions total some $2.5 billion a year, an annual subsidy of about $7,000 for each of the 300,000 jobs directly involved in the logistics industry, according to John Haveman, an economist for the Public Policy Institute of California. “The goods-movement industry is using the air for free,” he says.

However, many fear that any drastic and expensive requirements to clean up diesel soot could cause the logistics sector to move to other ports and trigger an economic debacle reminiscent of the aerospace bust of the early 1990s after the Cold War ended.

“Diversion is a concern,” says Barry Sedlik, California's undersecretary of business, transportation and housing.

Some community leaders would welcome shrinkage of the industry, questioning the wisdom of staking the region’s economic-development strategy on logistics. They say imports are hollowing out what’s left of local goods production in Southern California and, like a house of cards, could be quickly blown away by changes in the Chinese yuan, a dramatic increase in the price of oil, or a burst of the real-estate bubble.

“We could have put the same kind of time and money into promoting another industry in this area,” says Penny Newman, a lifelong environmental activist in Mira Loma who runs the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. “This would be the last type of industry you would focus on.”

Because of the industry’s growing health toll, Newman maintains that a moratorium on port expansion is needed. Warehousing operations, with their trucks, trains and other equipment, will kill more than one out of every 1,000 people who live their lifetimes in Newman’s hometown of Mira Loma, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Their emissions also contribute to asthma and other respiratory diseases. The risk is even greater in other communities and worsening as the volume of imports grows, exceeding three people per thousand in San Pedro and almost three people per thousand around downtown Long Beach.

There are a number of potential strategies to solve the air-pollution problems created by the industry.

Pollution and transportation officials are gradually retrofitting and replacing diesel equipment with catalysts and cleaner-burning engines — using public funds in many cases to subsidize private companies. They have begun operating the ports and warehouses at night to keep trucks off the road at rush hour. In the long term, they want to build new rail lines, rail yards and truck lanes on freeways to eliminate pollution-causing traffic congestion.

Skeptics fear these strategies will do little to reduce pollution, but everything needed to accommodate the promised quadrupling of imports through the region and to complete the wreckage of manufacturing in the region and the nation.

“All that money we send over to China is going to have to be paid back by our children,” says Michel Gelobter, executive director of Redefining Progress, an Oakland-based sustainable-economics think tank. “We’d have higher-quality jobs in locally producing goods in the Los Angeles basin.” At a minimum, Gelobter and Haveman believe that the industry should be taxed or required to pay fees to mitigate the cost of pollution borne by residents in greater Los Angeles.

Legislation, SB 760, sponsored by Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) would impose a fee of $30 on each 20-foot container moved through the ports, raising almost $400 million a year to help fund cleanup measures.

“We’re not going to get funding from Washington to help work our way out of this,” Lowenthal says, calling his bill crucial to solving the problem. “If it promotes the well-being of the goods-movement industry and we begin to lower the pollution and make the community accept more goods movement, it will be positive for the economy.”

However, Lowenthal says his bill has been bitterly fought by the railroads and shipping industries. It also has not found support with the Schwarzenegger administration, so the senator is planning to hold the bill until the next session of the Legislature, hopeful he can win the governor’s support.

“We see container fees as the last element we want to pursue,” says Sedlik, who is developing a report on how to accommodate projected growth in shipping in California while simultaneously reducing air pollution. The task force working on the report, due late this year, has identified $48 billion worth of needs, but the administration does not think the industry should be forced to pay for everything. Sedlik thinks the public must pay for some of the infrastructure and changes needed to reduce the pollution, perhaps in the form of public-private partnerships in which industry contributes too.

Peering out of the window
of his large and tidy office, Robert Kanter has
a sweeping view of the Port of Long Beach, from the stack of shipping containers
across the street to the white-hulled Queen Mary. Trucks whiz on and off
the 710 freeway — the main corridor to the ports — past the yellow headquarters
building of the Port of Long Beach, where he is director of planning and environmental

From his vantage, the shipping industries and ports are taking steps to reduce air pollution. “There are a lot of efforts ongoing as we speak,” says Kanter.

The twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are the largest and busiest in the nation, spanning more than 16 square miles. In 2004, almost 6,000 ships visited the complex, transporting 13.2 million 20-foot-long containers. Each day it takes scores of cranes, thousands of pieces of yard equipment, 30,000 trucks and hundreds of locomotives to keep the goods moving.

Giant ships sailing from Asia enter the ports of Long Beach and Long Angeles stacked with as many as 8,000 metal containers crammed full of imported goods. International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) members lift the containers off the freighters with huge cranes and use off-road trucks and other equipment to jockey them around in terminal yards and eventually put them onto the beds of on-road trucks that take them inland to rail yards and warehouses.

About half the goods arriving here are shipped east in containers — including some transferred back onto ships bound for Europe. The others are taken to warehouses, where crews break them down and repack the goods in trucks destined for stores throughout California and the West. Diesel emissions occur all the way down the line, from the incoming ships to the outbound trucks and trains on the east end of the metropolitan area.

The cleanup strategy is two-pronged: first to make the ships, trucks, trains and other equipment run more cleanly by converting them to cleaner-burning engines and fuels, and second to eliminate inefficiencies in the system and avoid idling and traffic congestion, which also causes pollution.

Long Beach embarked on an air-quality-improvement program in which it is requiring terminal operators, which rent land from the port, to reduce emissions from yard equipment, Kanter notes. In addition, the port participates in a program to clean up trucks known as the Gateway Cities Fleet Modernization project.

Shipping lines have entered a voluntary agreement to slow their cruising speeds from more than 20 to 12 knots when within 20 nautical miles of the ports, a move that cuts emissions, according to T.L. Garrett, a consultant to the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators. However, only about half the ships observe the agreement, Kanter says.

The association also supports ratification of an international treaty known as Marpol Annex VI, which will set tighter emissions standards for new ships. In addition, it supports requiring ships sailing into North America to use low-sulfur fuel that would reduce emissions of smoke and other sulfur compounds by 50 percent.

Under the recently adopted Pier Pass program, the two ports have worked with terminal operators to encourage them to run night and weekend shifts to minimize truck traffic on congested freeways during business hours. Shippers pay a fee of $40 on any container moved during normal business hours. The money is rebated to terminal operators to cover the cost of their extended hours. Lines of truckers waiting for containers also have been shortened under legislation by Lowenthal enacted early in the decade. It requires an appointment schedule for pickups.

Meanwhile, the railroads entered a voluntary agreement with the California Air Resources Board last summer that will reduce their emissions of diesel particulate by 20 percent. Under the agreement, the railroads will bring clean new locomotives required by federal regulation into the region on an accelerated basis. They also will assess the health risk of emissions around their yards and then take steps to reduce risks, such as moving running locomotives farther away from neighboring homes and businesses, according to Mark Stehle, assistant vice president of environmental research and development for BNSF, which, along with Union Pacific, is the major railroad serving the region.

Environmentalists and the AQMD have been critical of the proposal, which was reached between the industry and the California Air Resources Board behind closed doors, claiming more could be done.

While they were cutting a deal with the air board, the railroads lobbied vigorously against Lowenthal’s bill, according to the senator, and criticized studies showing their emissions are a major contributor to cancer and other illnesses in the region. “There certainly are some health effects,” says Stehle. However, he claims that health studies are uncertain and overestimate the problem.

The Port of Los Angeles’ no-net-increase plan is the most comprehensive proposal for controlling pollution at the ports and inland logistics facilities. It outlines a “tool box” of technologies, projects and policies that can hold the line on emissions growth, even while the port grows, according to Ralph Appy, environmental affairs director for the Port of Los Angeles. Among them are providing on-dock facilities so that ships can plug in for power while in port instead of running their engines to generate electricity. While in port, ships can emit as much pollution as a refinery on an hour-by-hour basis.

“The mayor is very pro-environment,” says Appy. “He wants this problem resolved.”

The measures in the plan, including electrification, are modeled after concessions won by the Natural Resources Defense Council in a landmark suit against China Shipping at the Port of Los Angeles. The company was happy to have ships plug in for power as long as “the shrimp didn’t melt,” recalls former NRDC lawyer Gail Ruderman Feuer.

Fully putting the no-net-increase plan measures into place could cost more than $16 billion, financed by the industry and the public. However, the port estimates that the public health benefits of the plan could reach $28 billion. Overall, the plan would keep emissions related to Port of Los Angeles cargo growth — projected to reach 443 percent by 2025 — from increasing 11,350 and 1,070 tons a year of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, respectively.

“It certainly is a very good beginning,” says Peter Greenwald, senior policy adviser for the AQMD. “Obviously, we need to do better than that because we need to reduce pollution.” Greenwald says that, as landlords, the ports have the legal power to set and enforce tough pollution-reduction requirements for terminal operators.

However, Kanter in Long Beach says he doubts that the Los Angeles plan will ever be fully carried out because of its cost.

North of the ports, trains move slowly but steadily along a modern-looking
railway that runs through the heart of the metropolitan area along Alameda Boulevard,
known as the Alameda Corridor. The tracks run from near the twin ports up to two
rail yards south of downtown Los Angeles.

The trains carry colored containers bearing the names of shippers — like Hanjin and Cosco — from the ports to the yards, where they are switched onto long-haul locomotives bound for the eastern U.S. in bustling yards near the City of Commerce. Drivers on the 710 freeway cannot help but notice the expansive yards, even at night, when they are brightly lit like a stadium.

After years of planning, the Alameda Corridor was built between 1997 and 2002, at a cost of $2.4 billion, to run through a trench in places to avoid crossing city streets. Backed by a federal loan guarantee, a joint-powers agency financed the project, which is being paid off with fees charged to the railroads for using the tracks.

The corridor originally was expected to make half of the containers move faster from the port, reduce traffic jams on the 710 freeway and cut pollution, but so far it has yet to live up to its promise. Last year it carried only 5,514 out of the more than 36,000 containers moved a day, or about 15 percent. The 710 freeway is as congested as ever, as trucks still haul containers from the ports to the rail yards near downtown. Bandini Boulevard, the offramp for the rail yards, is jammed with trucks delivering containers.

The corridor has been underutilized because it is inflexible, according to Marianne Venieres, executive director of the Center for International Trade and Transportation at California State University, Long Beach. Trains cannot move containers to warehouses because they are scattered across the region, even into the Mojave Desert and San Joaquin Valley. She says planners created the corridor project to accommodate growth.

Meanwhile, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a regional planning agency, has outlined a proposal to build $26 billion worth of new transportation facilities for trucks and trains to move freight in the region. Included in the draft are plans to double-deck the 710 freeway, build truck-ways on the 57, 91 and 15 freeways and Interstate 5, and extend the Alameda Corridor east through the San Gabriel Valley.

SCAG is recommending that the work be financed, like the Alameda Corridor, through a largely regional public-private partnership under which government transportation agencies, or a joint-powers authority, would float bonds and pay them off with tolls collected from trucks and railroads that use the facilities. Only about 25 percent of the money would likely come from the federal and state governments combined, says Jeff Lustgarten, a spokesperson for the association.

Behind the grand plans of the ports, SCAG and the Schwarzenegger administration
to spend tens of billions of dollars on new equipment, fuels and transportation
infrastructure for the logistics industry are economic studies, such as one conducted
by economist John Husing. He maintains the Los Angeles area has been adept at
using its strategic location as a gateway to imports from Asia to replace the
collapsed aerospace industry of the early 1990s. The logistics industry employs
some 600,000 workers in the region.

“Forty-six percent of the adult population of California has never stepped foot in a college classroom,” says Husing, who touts the industry as the state’s key source of jobs. “You shut that down and I don’t know what you do with blue-collar workers. They flip burgers at Burger King.”

Husing says that the average pay in logistics is around $45,000 a year and that people working in the field without a college degree make an average of $16 an hour. However, he notes that starting pay is between $8 and $10 an hour, similar to that at Wal-Mart and fast-food restaurants.

The high wages of longshore workers, railroad engineers and managers no doubt pulls up the average in an industry that is predominantly non-unionized. But they are a small fraction of the total.

“The solution is unionization,” says Steve Stallone, spokesperson for the ILWU, who noted that the vast majority of truck drivers hauling containers make about $8 an hour. Many of them drive their own old, high-polluting rigs, which they cannot afford to replace or clean without public subsidy.

“They’re shifting their costs onto society as a whole,” says Stallone of Wal-Mart and other importers of cheap goods, “so they’re dragging down the community.”

Economist Haveman also questions the wisdom of subsidizing the logistics industry. “If you’re going to do it, be aware of all of the implications,” he cautions. “Pollution is going to increase dramatically.”

It may not even expand the economy. “There’s some evidence to suggest there’s been a hollowing-out effect,” says Haveman, who has found in his studies that areas around rail yards, the ports and warehouses tend to have less economic activity than areas of Southern California absent those facilities.

However, the public subsidies have helped the ports and associated logistics industry in the region grow. Aside from transportation facilities themselves, a 2003 study by the Legislative Analyst’s Office in Sacramento found that trade received 22.6 percent of subsidies under California's Enterprise Zone program. In the zones, the state effectively pays 50 percent of employee salaries by offering businesses tax credits, which decline by 10 percent each year. To be eligible for the credits, wages cannot exceed 150 percent of the federal minimum wage.

Nobody can find out which companies enjoy the credits, explains Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, because the information is considered confidential tax data.

The cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach also routinely approve Foreign Trade Zone status for warehouses built throughout Southern California, which allows importers to minimize customs payments to the U.S. Treasury.

Quick to take advantage of the break was Black & Decker, which once made water faucets in the San Fernando Valley but closed its plant in the 1990s. Earlier this year the company occupied another regional warehouse in Fontana to import more goods from China.

The city froze development fees for the builder of the warehouse, Prologis, which builds and rents space throughout the region to importers like Black & Decker. Normally the fees would increase over time.

Back in Mira Loma, like in so much of the rest of Southern California,
gone are the farmers who once tended cows and grew fruit and vegetables. Gone
too are most of the manufacturing workers who once made countless products along
the Alameda Corridor and other sections of Los Angeles.

In their place is a steady stream of diesel-belching ships, trucks and trains bringing in cheap imports and blanketing the air with toxic pollution. Then there is the army of “logistics” workers, the fancy name for truckers, forklift drivers, warehouse stockers and clerks who start a cut above minimum wage and may make up to $16 an hour if they last.

In between are big-box retailers with shelves full of cheap goods made by low-wage workers abroad.

“We have the lowest per-capita income and lowest wages of any region in the nation,” says Goetz Wolff, a UCLA professor of urban planning and policy who teaches a class on the “Wal-Martization” of the economy.

And there's another negative effect of Mira Loma's dabbling in the global economy: the dirtiest air in the region.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.