Los Angeles, Long Beach ports OK air pollution fee
By Amanda Beck
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Millions of shipping containers passing through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach next year will be assessed a new fee designed to improve air quality and remove a political obstacle that has stymied expansion of the country's largest port complex.
Both seaports, which adjoin each other but operate independently, approved a $35 cargo fee this week for 20-foot container units that enter or exit the ports on trucks that do not meet 2007 emissions standards.
Officials expect the fee to generate $1.6 billion over the next five years and say they will use the proceeds to replace a fleet of 16,800 dirty trucks that carry containers between ships, local distribution centers and rail lines.
"The tennis shoes will be a nickel more, but the people will breathe healthier here," said David Freeman, president of the Los Angeles Port Commission.
These aging, short-haul trucks handle about three-quarters of the ports' freight and are part of the machinery -- including ships, harbor craft, and locomotives -- that has long been criticized for its air pollution of the local environment.
About 25 percent of the diesel emissions in the Los Angeles basin originate from the ports and, when combined with other port gases, are responsible for about 67 premature deaths each year, according to the California Air Resources Board.
Forty percent of the country's imports pass through the complex, leaving nearby residents to suffer unusually high rates of asthma and lung disease. Public concern has made port expansion politically unfeasible even as port traffic has boomed in recent years, Freeman said.
"We've taken two significant steps now: We have a timetable for cleaning up, and we have a way to help people do it," Freeman said.
The fee will begin in June, and the ports expect to begin phasing out diesel trucks, some that date to 1989, in October.
However, not all are in favor of the new program: Most of the ports' short-haul trucks are operated by independent contractors, often low-income, Spanish-speaking drivers who make about $12 an hour.
The drivers say they cannot afford to maintain new computer-controlled engines on greener trucks even if the port provides the rigs. In recent weeks, they have stood at port gates to protest with whistles and signs asking trucking companies to buy the rigs and formally hire them to drive.
The ports will consider their request and other questions about how to distribute the funds next month.
But in the end, the program will certainly amount to an overhaul of how trucking works in the country's largest port complex, Freeman said.
"I think the vast majority of people understand that we have an obligation to grow and green the port," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told Reuters in a telephone interview on Thursday. "And you're not going to grow it if you don't green it."
(Editing by Carol Bishopric)