Friday, August 05, 2005

Clearing The Air

In a post from a few days ago, I picked on some LAT San Pedro coverage.

In turn, I was picked on for defending San Pedro's air quality.

In response, Noel Park commented that a New York Times article indicates that San Pedro's air is, in fact, crap. Sort of.

The article says, in short, that LA's air used to be almost completely unbreathable - in the 50s - and thanks to cutting-edge legislation and regulation, became vastly better. In San Pedro, however, the daily requirements of operating the country's largest port complex leave the district vulnerable to dangerous levels of air pollution.

This is true. However, it also oversimplifies the situation - at least as it is interpreted by some.

A disclaimer: I'm not saying any air pollution is ever really acceptable.

What I am saying is that the type of pollution addressed in this article - particulates from diesel emissions from trucks and ships - is a very geographically limited form of pollution. This means that the people living within certain distances from major trucking routes or terminals face increased risk of health problems as a result of particulate pollution.

Really, I had an op-ed published on this - if I weren't all YD-ed in the head from the convention, I'd dig it - and its supporting research - up for you. But you'll have to wait.

I point this out because I think when dealing with this kind of policy problem, accurately describing and talking about the situation helps develop the most effective response. In this case, if we talk about port-related air pollution in the same terms as vehicle emission pollution we may actually be disserving the communities most at risk from particulate pollution.

Trucks queuing up on Channel don't directly - or even likely measurably - effect my parents on the other side of town. Particles - the soot that causes health problem - are heavy. They don't float far. That stuff is different from ozone - which the article makes clear, but the resulting rhetoric won't.

But who lives by truck routes and busy ports? Not our most enfranchised or economically advantaged neighbors. And when more organized NIMBYs push truck traffic out of their neighborhoods, where does it go? So besides pollution, the problem becomes discrimination.

This is a social justice issue with environmental aspects and an environmental issue with social justice aspects. If port pollution become a pan-San Pedro problem instead of a area-specific problem - that should absolutely be of concern to the whole town because something done to one of us is an affront to all of us - our ability to combat the problem diminishes.

So - though it may be nuanced - I'm not incorrect when I defend most of San Pedro's air.

But that should make us even more concerned about the problem, because it makes sick those already less able to fight back - economically, politically, or medically.


cd said...

August 3, 2005
California Air Is Cleaner, but Troubles Remain
TOPANGA STATE PARK, Calif. - On many days, a hiker on the Temescal Ridge trail above the Pacific Ocean, 30 to 50 miles west of the San Gabriel Mountains, can trace the snowy ridges and the thin, brown lines of canyons with the naked eye. Three decades ago, an entire summer could pass before homeowners just five miles from the mountains could see the peaks.

Kyle Eden, a varsity tennis player in Glendora High School below the San Gabriels, has never had a match called for smog, as his father, Rudy, did in the 1970's.

Bob Wyman, a lawyer, no longer pants for air after running as he did in his childhood.

Visitors like Leon Billings, who shaped the Clean Air Act as a senior Senate staff member, do not have to pull off the freeways and wait for their eyes to stop tearing.

"Smog had a palpable impact on our daily lives," Mr. Wyman said. "I'm 51. I'm not sure how conscious most people are of this."

In the last half-century, the urgent need to scrub clean the filthiest air in the country has reshaped the region's politics, turned obscure agencies into regulatory behemoths and made Los Angeles an international leader in its hard-won expertise.

But for all this achievement, success - consistently healthy air for all 16 million Southern Californians - remains out of reach.

The ozone pollution is improving but the region remains, along with Houston and the San Joaquin Valley in Central California, one of the worst three in the nation.

And the authorities have far less power to control another type of air pollution, one just as harmful as ozone, if not more so.

Hidden from hikers in Topanga State Park by the low hills of the Palos Verdes Peninsula are the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The hub of a ravenous American appetite for cheap Asian goods, the ports are also a concentrated source of diesel pollutants spewing from the ships, locomotives and lines of idling trucks.

The tiny exhaust particles, just one twenty-eighth the width of the average human hair, get deep inside lungs and have been newly linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Much of what Los Angeles has achieved has been accomplished by strict state regulations in tandem with the federal mandates of the Clean Air Act of 1970. With continuing pressure from the Bush administration for changes in the act, this place whose name was once synonymous with filthy air is perhaps the best place to measure what the Clean Air Act has accomplished - and what remains undone.

The Los Angeles narrative has parallels around the country. In the Ohio River Valley, the steel industry has shriveled, but electric utilities have become a dominant polluter. Along the western shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the chemical industry stands in the forefront. In California, the biggest issue is emissions from cars, trucks, trains and ships.

The four counties usually visible from the ocean-hugging slopes above Santa Monica have been to the clean air struggle what the Deep South was to the civil rights movement.

It was not a folk-song-ready revolution. Its epic figures are biochemists and engineers, known for precision, not charisma. Its battlefields, the insides of engines. Its foot soldiers, bureaucracies with forgettable names but memorable accomplishments, like setting emission standards that put catalytic converters in California cars in 1975, two years ahead of the rest of the nation.

California's problem today, however, is that the state has little clear legal authority at the ports, where cargo volume is projected to triple by 2030. "A great deal of work still needs to be done," said Michael H. Scheible, deputy executive officer of the California Air Resources Board. "And we don't have another automobile out there, something that has big emissions and that we have full authority to control."

Pollution Fight Begins

In 1955, downtown Los Angeles experienced the nation's worst-ever prolonged ozone pollution: on one day the hourly average levels of choking ozone were six times the maximum allowable rate under current federal standards.

The source had been pinpointed a couple of years earlier, by Arie Haagen-Smit, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology. A plant biologist, Dr. Haagen-Smit had been studying the organic basis of pineapples' scent, using ozone as a tool, when, as his wife later told a Caltech historian, a scientist heading the area's first air pollution control agency asked him to try to figure out where smog came from.

In a study quickly ridiculed by scientists financed by the auto industry, Dr. Haagen-Smit laid out the method by which hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen, rising from car tailpipes into Southern California's persistent sunlight, were cooked into photochemical smog. The major component is ozone created through this chemical reaction.

Dr. Haagen-Smit intended to return to his pineapples, but after he heard his work disparaged in a Caltech lecture hall, he devoted himself to pollution science, eventually becoming the first head of the statewide Air Resources Board.

In laying out the formula for what ailed Los Angeles, Dr. Haagen-Smit had fingered its principal sources: cars and oil refineries. And as more became known about these and other causes of pollution, lawmakers began to focus on controlling them.

Fifteen years after Los Angeles's most breathless summer, Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, which took many of its core concepts from California.

The law set standards for air quality, and like California's regulations, it established deadlines for government action. It embraced the idea that if you tell an industry it must reduce emissions, its engineers will figure out how - a route called "technology forcing."

By terms of the 1970 Clean Air Act, California was the only state that retained its freedom to regulate as it saw fit. By the mid-1970's, the state's regulations, which held sway over 10 percent of Detroit's market, forced the installation of catalytic converters in cars, and later eliminated from gasoline the lead that was poisoning the converters. The federal government followed.

Southern Californians "just assume that air pollution is something you can make go away," said Mary Nichols, a former state official and the chief of the air division of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration. "We don't feel we have to settle for it."

Since 1980, Southern California's population has increased by 60 percent and cars are tracing twice as many miles across the region - 337 million a year. But the number of days when ozone levels over an eight-hour period violated the federal standard has dropped to 88 from 186; emissions of nitrogen oxide have dropped by two-thirds and those of carbon monoxide by more than 80 percent.

An expanding bureaucracy, led by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, also took on other sources of pollution; measuring, monitoring and regulating emissions from nearly every corner of daily life, including backyard incinerators, oil-based paints, street sweepers, dry cleaners and barbecue lighter fluid.

"We've always been pushing the limits to find out where we can go," the chairman of the South Coast district, William Burke, said in a recent interview. "Does that aggravate people? Yes. Does it get things done? Yes."

A little after 7 most mornings, Mike Brewer, 53, drives his orange 1988 Kenworth truck, with its 350 horsepower Cummins engine, up to the offices of a freight business in Rancho Dominguez. There he finds out each day what he is picking up at the ports - office chairs? art? fireworks? shoes? cars? - and which warehouse is expecting the cargo. From Rancho Dominguez he gets on the 710 Freeway and heads for one of the ports.

From a dog-walking park above one corner of the Port of Los Angeles, the scale of the industrial landscape is staggering. The cranes and gantries around the 270 ship berths look like dozens of monster erector sets.

The acreage of the two ports would cover Manhattan from the Battery to 34th Street.

Mr. Brewer has been hauling cargo from the twin ports since 1988, making two to four trips a day. Now, he said, "The air is way thicker because you have your older trucks and all the different machinery." The port averages 35,000 truck trips a day, its Web site reports.

From the elevated park, the orange cab of Mr. Brewer's truck comes into view, snaking through containers to the place where a smaller crane, called a heister, picks up a 20- or 40-foot container from a stack three high and swings it onto the chassis that has been given to Mr. Brewer for the trip.

Each trip means separate waits to pick up the chassis and the container; he could wait in as many as four lines. As these lines lengthen during the summer, the pollution builds up.

Last weekend, the two ports began all-night cargo-moving operations as part of an effort to minimize truck lines and accelerate the flow of goods. But it is unclear if the surrounding neighborhoods, where nighttime truck noise is unwelcome at best, will consider this an improvement.

Problem at the Ports

In 2004, some 40 percent of national seaborne imports, 235.7 million metric tons, came through the two ports. In 2001, diesel engines of all types - trucks, ships, locomotives, heisters - that carried them through the Port of Los Angeles alone directly pumped out 2.3 tons of tiny soot a day into the region, a study by port officials showed. Recent scientific studies have linked these particles to cancer and cardiovascular disease, the country's most pervasive killers.

A major study sponsored by the South Coast district in 1998 showed that the cancer risk for residents of Long Beach, to the immediate northeast of the ports, was twice as great as the risk for people in west-central Los Angeles and four times as high as the risk for those near Topanga Canyon. Diesel particulates from trucks, ships and locomotives, the study said, accounted for 70 percent of the risk.

While California has been successful in regulating cars and gasoline, it faces daunting obstacles with trains and container ships. Since 1990, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has had the sole authority to regulate locomotives. Container ships are the province of the International Maritime Organization. Federal rules put into effect in 2000 and last year will reduce sulfur, a building block of the toxic tiny soot, in diesel fuel used in trucks. But the standards apply only to fuel used in new engines, and small-business men like Mr. Brewer keep their trucks, which are a major capital investment, as long as possible.

Last year, the E.P.A. announced a plan to cut the sulfur content of locomotive fuel over five years beginning in 2007. Some California regulators say the limits were too long in coming. But Margo T. Oge, director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality at the environmental agency, said the agency followed a logical progression, first tackling the most easily achievable emissions cuts, mandating changes in internal engine dynamics in 1997. Then it moved to regulate fuel.

On the container ships, most engines use a so-called bunker fuel that contains as much as 30,000 parts per million of sulfur, 10 times the amount in diesel fuel used in older trucks and 2,000 times as much as American diesel fuel will contain in 2010.

Under an international agreement that took effect in May, countries can create zones where ship fuel can have no more than 15,000 parts per million of sulfur. But it has no effect in the United States because the Senate has not ratified the treaty; it has been preoccupied with another maritime treaty, the Law of the Sea.

The notion that the biggest contributor of toxic soot is so difficult to regulate has incensed community leaders in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles, the ports' nearest neighbor.

"I'd go over these two bridges," said Noel Park, the head of the San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners United, referring to the bridges that pass over the ports, "and I'd be above the line of old beat-up trucks. I'd wonder how long I could hold my breath."

While neighbors fear the ports' growth, they have also used it as an opening. The Natural Resources Defense Council, acting on homeowners' behalf, sued to block one company, China Shipping, from expanding its terminal at the Port of Los Angeles until the environmental effect could be studied.

China Shipping agreed to a settlement that transformed its docking and unloading operations. Instead of using diesel power to keep equipment running, the ships would plug into electric power offered by the terminal. And the port agreed to contribute $55 million to this and other mitigation measures, including $10 million to help drivers like Mr. Brewer buy new, cleaner rigs.

The success of the suit has spurred Southern Californians in the State Legislature to redouble their efforts to put through legislation controlling the ports. A proposal to require whatever steps necessary to keep port pollution in the South Coast from increasing has passed the Senate and is being considered in the Assembly.

In recent years, shippers and their landlords in the twin ports have made adjustments, though their representatives say they had already been working on cooperative solutions.

Incentive programs, which promote emissions cleanup by, for instance, giving ships with cleaner-burning fuels the right to jump to the head of the line, were under way before the China Shipping settlement, said T. L. Garrett, the vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association in Long Beach.

"It's one thing to be part of the solution when you're doing it for all the right reasons," Mr. Garrett said. "It's another when you're being told: 'You're a bad guy and you have to do this.' "

And Mr. Garrett, a former port official, said shippers were wary of offering voluntary reductions, fearing that "eventually someone is going to turn that into a mandatory requirement."

"In the absence of a regulatory framework," he said, "the industry has stepped forward to reduce emissions beyond what they are required to."

The Cost of Cleaning Up

Though Bob Wyman, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, can remember when it was painful to breathe, he says government edicts on emissions, while "highly successful" in the past, could pose problems in more parlous economic times. Mr. Wyman, a lawyer who represents the Port of Long Beach and several goods-movement companies, says that because of the port's economic importance, regulation has to be leavened with market incentives to keep its costs down.

"We have to get this one right," he said, "so we need to be careful to select control strategies that can deliver air quality objectives at an affordable cost."

The Bush administration has sought to amend the Clean Air Act to give industry more flexibility while still reducing emissions over time. The measure is stalled in Congress, but changes in regulations this year could accomplish much of what the administration wants. They stretch out cleanup deadlines facing refineries, factories and power plants and adopt a market-based approach to cleaning the air by letting plants that exceed pollution limits buy "pollution allowances" from cleaner plants.

The changes are likely to have most impact east of the Mississippi River and a limited effect in California, largely because of the state's regulatory independence.

"We act even if the feds don't exist," said V. John White, who has worked on clean air programs for 30 years and is now a consultant and environmental lobbyist in Sacramento.

But California's progress is not constant. Ozone levels actually rose in 2002 and 2003 before falling again last year. In 2004, a 10-year study of a group of children growing up in the Los Angeles basin showed that the lungs of active children growing up in the areas of the thickest ozone had 10 percent to 20 percent less capacity than those of their counterparts in cleaner areas.

"The statistics would show that you're going to die younger and be more likely to have more heart and lung disease," said John Peters, the professor who headed the study for the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

And port traffic will only increase.

"This is the damage being done now," Professor Peters said. "It doesn't make sense to add more pollution."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

JB said...

It's important too, that Los Angeles is dependent on the Port traffic, so much as you point out, it is the area's problem to abate.

Of course, the question becomes how much do we do about it, and how much can be reasonably done. Should a port tax be leavied on goods entering or leaving the port, that would be funneled back to the residents of the affected area through remedial pollution measures...heck that might actually work, although, possibly impossible to enact.

I don't know, there might be some solution that would work, but it won't be easy to come to.