Environment: America's Two Biggest Ports Go Green

America's ports are not generally thought of as the most ecologically advanced places on the planet. But a green wave is lapping at their shores. This summer, officials at the polluted twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach began a program to convince container-ship captains to wean their engines off dirty-burning "bunker fuel" and instead use relatively clean marine diesel oil while idling in port. Up until recently, that hasn't been an easy sell. While marine diesel has just one tenth the sulfur, it costs an extra $650 a ton. That can add up quickly, especially during a typical three-day port of call. As an incentive to participate in their alternative-fuels program, port officials are making up the cost difference.

Using greenbacks to go green is just one of the tactics being used in Long Beach and Los Angeles. Located side by side on San Pedro Bay south of downtown L.A., the ports have launched what local environmentalists agree is the most far-reaching and ambitious air-pollution cleanup in the nation. Some have even gone further. "These are the two best port plans in the world," says energy consultant James S. Cannon, author of a report on pollution at U.S. ports. With help from state and local air-quality agencies, the program aims at the big culprits of air pollution to slash emissions roughly in half by 2012. The tools: using cleaner fuels, replacing old polluting trucks with electric trucks, plug-in ships, and even, later this year, the introduction of the world's first hybrid tugboat, dubbed a "Prius of the Seas."

For many, the cleanup is long overdue. The L.A. and Long Beach ports are not only the country's busiest (the Port of New York and New Jersey ranks third), they're also among the dirtiest and most difficult to regulate. Together, the West Coast docks handle about 44 percent of the nation's international container-cargo trade, bringing in a range of goods from Chinese-made sneakers to Japanese-built Priuses. The constant stream of diesel ships and trucks emits a noxious mix of sulfur and nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that permeate nearby neighborhoods. In the L.A. area, studies attributed 120 premature deaths each year to the docks, mostly from heart and lung ailments; the cancer risk nearest the ports is almost twice the already-elevated risk in the region. Worse, while the chances of contracting cancer are dropping overall in L.A., they grew in port areas by 15 percent between 1998 and 2005. "It sticks out like a sore thumb," says Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), which oversees pollution-control planning in the L.A. area.

Environmental and health officials pushed for a cleanup throughout the 1990s, but the port barely reacted until the Natural Resources Defense Council and neighborhood groups succeeded in a 2001 lawsuit in blocking port expansion for a China Shipping terminal until the port committed to an extensive cleanup. By 2004, the new Chinese terminal had opened with electric plug-ins for docked ships and cleaner diesel trucks on shore. Seeing that other expansion plans would also be blocked, incoming Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his counterpart in Long Beach called for a comprehensive, portwide plan to clean up and help smooth the way for future expansion. He appointed S. David Freeman, an environmentalist, power-company official and former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, to spearhead the effort. With help from the SCAQMD, the state's Air Resources Board and the US EPA, the ports approved a blueprint in 2006. "We believe the only way to grow the port is to green the port," says Villaraigosa. "And the only way to green the port is to grow the port. Those things aren't mutually inconsistent."

Central to the plan: the alternative-fuel program that's paying for ships to burn cleaner marine diesel while they're in port rather than bunker fuel. Launched on July 1, L.A.'s port director Geraldine Knatz says about 23 percent of the cargo and cruise ships have signed up. But winning over shipping companies has been neither easy nor cheap. The plan will cost L.A. and Long Beach at least $18 million this year. Plus, says T. L. Garrett, a vice president of the trade group the Pacific Marine Shippers Association, "There are a number of companies who have very real concerns." Among them: technical concerns about their engines and a worry about fuel availability. Still, the program "should provide benefits you can see overnight," says David Pettit, a senior attorney at the NRDC, who closely tracks port air quality. Next July, revamped state regulations are scheduled to kick in, forcing all ships to burn cleaner fuel--without subsidies. State officials expect to cut ship emissions by 80 percent.

The port plan goes further to reduce on-board pollution. Even docked ships pollute while they run auxiliary engines; to combat the problem, port officials are pushing to allow vessels to plug in on shore, a process known as "cold ironing." In 2004, China Shipping became the first line in Los Angeles to convert to a transformer system on a barge called AMP, or Alternative Marine Power. Newer ships can plug straight into a shore plug. L.A. port officials hope to have the giant plugs at each terminal within five years (10 years at Long Beach). In the meantime, Long Beach and SCAQMD officials are looking at a "sock on the stack"--a 2,500-pound Advanced Maritime Emissions Control System that can cut emissions by 95 percent, says SCAQMD's Wallerstein.

Trucks serving the ports are big polluters, too. A new plan aims to clean up the 16,500 diesel trucks that perform short-haul "drayage" work--moving containers from the ports to nearby warehouse and distribution centers. About 2,000 to 3,000 of the trucks are old energy-inefficient models with hundreds of thousands of miles on them. "The ports are where old trucks go to die," says Pettit, the NRDC attorney. Starting Oct. 1, the two ports will ban trucks built before 1989, the first year of diesel pollution control; by 2012, the ports will bar any trucks that don't meet the cleanest, 2007 diesel standards. To compensate, both ports will provide up to 80 percent of the purchase price of the clean trucks, and L.A. officials will pay an additional $5,000 for pre-1989 rigs. To raise money for the program, the ports would issue a $35 surcharge per 20-foot container trucked out of the port.

But the plan has its critics. "We support the clean-air component," says Curtis Whalen, executive director of the American Trucking Association's Intermodal Motor Carriers Conference, which recently filed a lawsuit to block the proposal. His group's key concern: that independent truck operators who couldn't afford the upgrades would either go out of business or be forced to work for a handful of trucking companies that dominate port traffic. A hearing is scheduled for late September, but Mayor Villaraigosa says the plan will move forward. "We're undeterred," he says. This week, giant trucking firms Swift Transportation and Knight Transportation both announced they plan to sign up for the program--and to use only clean trucks.

The ports are also investing in leading edge technology to cut down on idling diesels trucks, tugs and trains. The SCAQMD and the Port of L.A. helped fund an all-electric truck project from California startup Balqon that can haul a fully loaded 20-foot container at 40 miles an hour. Late this year, the first hybrid tugboat will begin nudging ships into port at Los Angeles, a diesel-electric hybrid called the Green Dolphin made by Foss Maritime. And Long Beach officials are seriously considering a magnetic levitation project to see if someday a short-haul maglev train could haul containers from the ports, say Jim Hankla, president of the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners.

Other ports are watching L.A. and Long Beach, but they are moving slowly. New York is looking at hybrid cargo handling equipment at two terminals. Seattle and Tacoma are working with biodiesel, and Oakland launched a truck program that so far has replaced 75 dirty trucks. But Cannon and others say that many ports are afraid additional regulations mean higher costs that will cause some shippers to flee to cheaper ports. Southern California port officials say they aren't worried about that. With tougher EPA rules coming on diesel trucks and locomotives, "A lot of other ports think they are going to be able to pick our pockets, but we think we're ahead of the game," says Long Beach's Hankla. According to Wallerstein, the SCAQMD director, the costs of the cleanup will only amount to a few pennies on a pair of tennis shoes and less than $1.50 on a plasma-screen television. "How can you say to a community that it's OK for you to suffer from high carcinogen levels so somebody gets a few bucks off a 40-inch TV?" he asks.

Editor's Note: On September 9th, a federal judge in California ruled against the American Trucking Association's suit and refused to halt the Los Angeles and Long Beach plan. Citing the health and environmental benefits of replacing the older, polluting trucks, District Judge Christina Snyder's ruling clears a major roadblock for the program, scheduled to start Oct. 1.