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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Poverty and Dirty Diesel

Air Date: Week of

Truck traffic at the Port of Los Angeles. (Courtesy of the Port)

It's been an intractable problem - the dirtiest diesel trucks are often owned by drivers who can't afford to replace or even maintain them. But the Sea Port of Los Angeles thinks it has a solution. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.

Pollution produced by diesel trucks is a health problem for millions of Americans. Especially dangerous are the tiny particles found in diesel exhaust. The particulates can lead to simple health problems like runny noses and more serious ailments including: asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, fetal damage, perhaps even brain cancer. The hazard is highest for those who live or work near heavy industry, roads heavy with traffic or our nation’s busy seaports. But as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, the Port of Los Angeles may have found a solution to the diesel truck exhaust problem.

LOBET: Over the last decade, residents have attended hearing after hearing to demand port authorities in Los Angeles and Long Beach do something about the air pollution - the soot associated with increasing international trade.

REYES URANGA: My children who were born on the west side suffer from asthma and other respiratory illnesses. We now live in a census tract that is designated as a cluster area for throat and mouth cancer. How do I care for my family's welfare?

LOBET: People were furious about the heavy trucks billowing black smoke, idling for hours and careening through neighborhoods as their drivers struggled to squeeze in two container trips a day. When Los Angeles elected Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor, he installed new leadership at the port, leaders who placed public health at the top of their agenda. Port of L.A. Executive Director Geraldine Knatz found herself facing an economic problem no one had been able to solve.

KNATZ: Right now, the majority of the truckers that come in and out of our Port are independent owner-operators. So they own their truck and they'll get a phone call from a broker who says I need you to go down to Maersk and pick up a container and take it here. A lot of them operate out of their homes, with just a cell phone and a truck.

POLA Executive Director Dr. Geraldine Knatz. (Courtesy of the Port)

LOBET: Truckers like Raúl Agamenón packed this Port hearing room in March to explain the pressures they were under, that they just couldn't pay for newer cleaner equipment.


VOICEOVER: I've been hauling cargo in and out of the port 25 years. I have a 1987 truck. Here is my check for a week's work: $556.00 I need to pay $400.00 for diesel fuel. I'll take home $116.00. I also want clean air; I want to drive a clean truck. I don’t want to harm my children, or other people's children either.

LOBET: Truckers testified they wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem. But many drive old hand-me-down trucks, some with a million miles on them. Port commission president David Freeman described the result.

FREEMAN: What has degenerated here is a place where old trucks come to die. And we can't have that.

LOBET: Again Geraldine Knatz:

KNATZ: We clearly recognize that the only way we’re going to meet health standards is to turn out the whole 16 thousand trucks that come in and out of this port each week. And we’ve got like over 40 thousand truck trips a day, everyday in and out of this port.

LOBET: Port officials were hoping to expand, but were held back by lawsuits. Environmental attorneys even managed to shut down a port expansion project for a Chinese shipper.

KNATZ: We got to a situation where we were sort of dead in the water on doing anything at the port’s here because we had so many environmental issues to deal with.

LOBET: So the officials proposed changing the truck business paradigm at the Port. Their plan would eliminate most owner-operators and force cargo dispatch companies to own their own trucks, and make the drivers their employees. The vehicles will all have to be newer and clean-burning. Over the objection of trucking industry groups, port commissioners approved the idea.

FREEMAN (chairing a harbor commission meeting): All in favor: Aye, aye. It's approved unanimously.


LOBET: Some local politicians say it was the biggest day of their careers. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spoke after the vote.

VILLARAIGOSA: Truck drivers, who are barely scraping by on average at 11 or 12 dollars an hour, shouldn't have to shoulder the burden of cleaning the air for our kids!

The Port of Los Angeles. (Courtesy of DPW)

LOBET: Here's how the program works: As of October 1st no truck can be older than 1989 and soon they'll have to be no older than 2007. Each vehicle will have a radio tag in the undercarriage so that its identifying data will come up on a screen at the port gates. Without it, the gates won't open. It's a far cry from the current system and it also carries significant security benefits at a place thought to be an attractive target for terrorists. Captain John Holmes is port director of operations.

HOLMES: We have the benefit of using this IT system not only to say this truck is pre-1989 or not, but also to say this truck should be driven by one of these 10 people, and if it is not one of these 10 people it doesn't conform.

LOBET: Since a clean-burning truck quickly becomes a dirty one if the emissions system isn't tuned regularly, the companies will also be required to maintain them.

HOLMES: So, if you’re a licensed motor carrier and you have 50 trucks, you’re gonna have to provide us your maintenance plan and we’re going to oversee the maintenance plan, and we’re going to make sure that you are maintaining the trucks.

LOBET: The port also decided to buy up old polluting trucks.

HOLMES: You know, we kind of looked at it like the programs that some of the police departments have where they buy guns, because they want to get guns off the street. We’re doing the same thing in a sense, but we’re doing it with trucks.

LOBET: But many in the business community saw the port's plan as meddling. Julie Sauls is with the California Trucking Association.

SAULS: The port of L.A. has put together a plan that, under the guise of clean air, really actually intends to change the business model of port operations.

LOBET: Sauls and other trucking organizations believe the Port's plan would allow re-unionization of the trucking industry, which became non-union when it was deregulated back in 1980.

Trucks idling at the Port of Los Angeles. (Courtesy of the Port)

SAULS: The one thing to remember though, is that this is the American dream, and the opportunity that folks can be an entrepreneur and own their own business. Many companies today that are a hundred, two hundred, or even two thousand-truck companies, started as a one-truck company. I think that is one of the biggest concerns, is that this plan really takes away an individual's right to be their own boss and to be an entrepreneur.

LOBET: Port leadership expects to be sued by the American Trucking Association. Although the new truck program doesn't go into effect for three months, Executive Director Geraldine Knatz says expansion projects are already beginning to inch forward.

KNATZ: Our board just approved the first project that has been approved in San Pedro Bay in seven years.

LOBET: But she says:

KNATZ: We’re not out of the woods with these environmental groups. You know, they really gotta see things.

LOBET: Commission President David Freeman:

FREEMAN: We’re in a serious trust-building period. You can't expect the community to just turn off their anger like it was a neon sign. They are going to keep our feet to the fire… until it gets done.

LOBET: Knatz and Freeman believe enough dirty trucks will disappear from the port area in the next two years that residents will see - and air monitors will confirm - the air is getting cleaner.

For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.



The Mayor of Los Angeles

More about L.A.’s clean truck program

To learn more about the American Trucking Association’s views on the plan, click here

The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports


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