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

Pollution Credits in LA

Air Date: Week of

Trading smokestack credits are one market-based way to curb pollution. But people who live near industrial areas say they're paying the price. In Los Angeles, activists say a key component of at least one pollution-trading program is unjust and perhaps illegal. And for the first time, officials are beginning to listen to their concerns. Emily Harris reports.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
The world conference on greenhouse gas emissions in Kyoto, Japan, has focused attention on the notion of owning and trading the right to pollute. The Clinton Administration, a strong supporter of domestic pollution credit programs, is pushing the practice internationally. But what about the people who live near the factories that buy the right to keep polluting? In Los Angeles, activists say a key component of at least one pollution trading program is unjust and perhaps illegal. And for the first time, officials are beginning to listen to their concerns. Emily Harris reports.

(Fog horn)

HARRIS: The port of Los Angeles is the world's second busiest port, just behind its next door neighbor, the port of Long Beach. Tens of millions of tons of cargo move through the 2 facilities annually. Millions of containers, hundreds of tankers full of oil, and industry spreads far inland from the piers.

(Motors running)

JOHNSON: There's off-loading of tankers. There is an incinerator that is owned by the City of Long Beach on Terminal Island. There are 5 refineries in the area. There are scrap iron depositories.

HARRIS: Laurie Cook Johnson taught elementary school for 27 years in Wilmington, a working-class LA neighborhood adjacent to the ports.

JOHNSON: We have the sulfur piles and the coal and I understand coke piles, down by the harbor also.

HARRIS: Ms. Johnson is now on illness leave from her job. She says a series of toxic exposures last year damaged her nerves. Other residents complain of bad smells, gritty air, frequent headaches, sore throats, and breathing problems. Some say that for years they've gotten more answering machines than action when they try to track down the right government agency. But now officials are starting to pay attention because of a lawsuit filed by a grassroots environmental group.

PORRAS: The Civil Rights Act of 1965 is being violated in terms of protecting people's health in these communities.

HARRIS: Carlos Porras is Southern California Director for Communities for a Better Environment, or CBE.

PORRAS: The Air District has allowed certain oil companies in the South Bay Harbor area to circumvent an existing regulation regarding the requirement to install vapor recovery technology.

HARRIS: Vapor recovery technology is used to keep toxic compounds from escaping into the air when petroleum products are loaded or unloaded from tankers. In the early 1990s, California's South Coast Air Quality Management District mandated its use as part of a new regional smog control program. Several oil companies promptly complied, but for those who felt the new equipment was too expensive, the Air District provided a way out. Instead of reducing their own toxic emissions, the District allowed companies to find and eliminate other sources of air pollution elsewhere in the region. For every unit of pollution they continued to produce, companies would have to eliminate that much plus another 20%. Backers of this pollution credits trading program say it's made the air in the LA basin cleaner overall, but Carlos Porras of CBE says if there's been any improvement, the neighbors of the ports of LA and Long Beach haven't seen it.

PORRAS: Even if you were to take at face value that there is some benefit to the air basin, what basically you have allowed to happen is to improve the air quality over that 4-county basin on the backs of these poor people living in San Pedro Wilmington. It's unjust, it's unfair, and it needs to be remedied.

(Industrial clanking)

HARRIS: That's the sound of the pollution credits program: old cars being crushed by a huge hydraulic press. Older cars pollute more than newer ones, so you can get a big improvement in air quality by taking them off the road permanently. Buying up and crushing old cars is the main way oil companies and others have compensated for their own pollution. The concept was developed by Unocal, one of the 5 oil companies named in the civil rights complaint. Unocal eventually spun off a subsidiary, Eco-Scrap, to manage pollution credits for its and other companies. Eco-Scrap's president, Ron Mertz, says he's sympathetic to the complaints about the program.

MERTZ: There is some logic to the argument that says wait a minute, the pollution is happening in a particular area, and the credit that you're using is in a larger geographical area.

HARRIS: But Mr. Mertz says solving pollution problems is always a matter of trade-offs.

MERTZ: I think the key would be whether or not the solution, alternate solutions, are so much more onerous on whoever the operator might be. You might get into a situation where people just throw up their hand and don't do anything, and that's not good for anybody.

HARRIS: The conflict over the emissions trading program puts the Clinton Administration in an awkward position. It's been a strong supporter of both the pollution credit programs and the concept of environmental justice. Officials in the EPA's Environmental Justice Department say they think civil rights should take precedence over market approaches to pollution problems, but they acknowledge the conflict represented by the LA case has yet to be addressed at a high level. They say their office will be watching the case closely. The Federal Government has increasingly relied on markets to help solve social and environmental problems. But environmental justice advocates like Carl Anthony of the Earth Island Institute are wary of the trend.

ANTHONY: The problem, of course, is that one of the reasons that people are poor is because of failures of the market. So there needs to be direct intervention on behalf of those communities and their problems of public health directly and not just simply to keep the market functioning smoothly.

HARRIS: For the time being, at least, the LA region's pollution trading program continues unchanged. But the challenge by Communities for a Better Environment is already having an impact. The South Coast Air Quality Management District has announced a million-dollar study of health problems near the ports of LA and Long Beach and other heavily-polluted areas, and has promised to review the pollution credits program when the studies are done. Meanwhile, a statewide air pollution agency has temporarily suspended approval of any new pollution credits programs in the state, pending specific guidance from the Federal EPA. For Living on Earth, I'm Emily Harris in Los Angeles.



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