THE BLOG

Killing at the Seaport: Port Pollution a Silent Killer

04/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many, if not most, of the products that we have in our homes first passed through one of the country's seaports. As gateways of global trade, our seaports give consumers access to a wide range of goods at a low cost. However, these gateways also create enormous amounts of pollution. And for those Americans that happen to live near a seaport, this pollution is a serious health hazard leading to negative health outcomes and even death.

In 2006, the neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach decided to tackle the problem of port-related pollution head-on. It was clear that immediate action was needed: a California study found that 2,400 premature deaths could be attributed to port-related pollution statewide every year. The ports teamed up to implement a plan that would reduce port-related emissions by 45 percent in five years.

The plan cut emission from every source of pollution at the ports, but perhaps most importantly from the two largest sources of pollution: oceangoing vessels and the diesel trucks that carry goods from the ports to points inland. It was the effort to reduce pollution from diesel trucks that became the most politically charged, however, as an alliance between environmental justice groups and organized labor pushed to implement the Clean Truck Program. Today's New York Times describes this seemingly unlikely alliance:

The labor-green alliance is getting under the trucking industry's skin by asserting that short-haul trucking companies working in ports -- and not the truck drivers, who are often considered independent contractors -- should spend the billions needed to buy new, low-emission rigs that can cost $100,000 to $175,000 each.

The Teamsters union says seaport air is so dirty largely because port truck drivers earn too little to buy trucks that would belch out fewer diesel particulates, tiny particles that contribute to cancer and asthma. Working with environmentalists, the union helped persuade the Port of Los Angeles to adopt a far-reaching plan that bars old trucks from hauling cargo from the port and puts the burden of buying new vehicles on the trucking companies, not the drivers.

The program was approved in 2008, and now 6,000 older, dirtier trucks have been replaced with the cleanest new models. New trucks are about ten times cleaner than trucks that were built before 1997. The result of the program so far, according to John Holmes, deputy executive director of operations at the Port of Los Angeles, is a 70 percent reduction in diesel truck emissions at the ports. That's definitely good news for residents of nearby communities who will be breathing a little easier.

But Los Angeles is not the only city where port activities impact local residents. In the communities surrounding the Port of Newark and Elizabeth, the health consequences of port-related emissions are just as real. At a New York City based event in 2008, Kim Thompson-Gaddy of the North Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance joined Chris Ward, Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Congressional Representative Jerold Nadler, and Sean Arian from the City of Los Angeles to talk about the health impacts of the port in her community.

The PANY/NJ currently has its own clean port program, but it isn't nearly as ambitious as it should be. The Port Authority currently has money available to replace 630 dirty trucks, but this is only about one quarter of the number of trucks that need to be replaced. Which is why the Port Authority should consider doing what Los Angeles has done: put a $70 fee on cargo containers that come into the port to fund the purchase of more clean trucks.

And because port truck drivers in New Jersey cannot afford to purchase new, clean trucks, the Port Authority should place the burden of purchasing new trucks on the trucking companies. Port truck drivers in New Jersey make about $29,000 a year after expenses like fuel, insurance, tolls, and truck maintenance are taken into account. In the Times story, Rafael Prestol, a truck driver at the Port of Newark, makes this clear.

"If we invest $100,000 in a new vehicle and we're making $2,000 a month or less, it doesn't make sense," said Mr. Prestol, who blames trucking deregulation for pulling down drivers' pay. "And what guarantee do you have after you buy a new truck that you'll continue to get work?"