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California Aims to Slash Port Pollution

Dr. John G. Miller is a emergency room doctor who is fighting to slash pollutions from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. He says his environmental activism could help save far more lives than the work he does at the hospital.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Dr. John G. Miller is a emergency room doctor who is fighting to slash pollutions from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. He says his environmental activism could help save far more lives than the work he does at the hospital.

America's busy sea ports are major hubs of the modern economy. They're also huge and growing sources of air pollution. And until now, they've largely escaped regulation. But in Southern California, local residents are forcing the nation's biggest port to face the problem.

Health Consequences

John Miller lives in a house perched just above the Pacific Ocean, at the bottom of a steep cliff. To get there you climb down 160 steps. From his deck, he has amazing views of the surf and Catalina island.

But Miller also has a front-row seat on global commerce -- large container ships that are visible only fleetingly. The ships quickly disappear into a brown cloud that stretches across the horizon. It's a deadly cloud, and its effects stretch for many miles.

"We're living in the headwaters of a diesel death zone here," Miller says. "It extends through this little town of San Pedro and Long Beach all the way in through the South Coast Air Basin."

The pollution comes from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. That's where ships, trains and trucks -- and their pollution -- converge. Those ports are Southern California's biggest single source of air pollution.

Studies show that tens of thousands of people living here face increased cancer risks 100 times greater than what California allows near factories. They also suffer higher rates of asthma, birth defects and lung failure.

Miller is an emergency room doctor. As he treats patients, he is sure that at least some of them are sick from the pollution.

"We see people who have never smoked, never worked with asbestos, never been exposed to radon, who come down with lung cancer," he says. "Unfortunately, women seem particularly susceptible to this."

Big Business

Just a few miles away, the bustling ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach merge into one massive industrial complex. Forty percent of all the containers that reach the United States travel through the area.

"It's almost impossible to appreciate the enormity of this operation without actually seeing it," says David Freeman, president of the Harbor Commission for the Port of Los Angeles. "It's almost like going out there in the Serengeti. When you go out and see it yourself, you get the enormity of it."

Cargo traffic in the Port of Los Angeles has nearly tripled in the last 10 years, and California politicians want it to keep growing. But if Freeman has his way, air pollution won't be growing with it. In fact, it will be chopped drastically.

"The traffic through this port 10 years from now will probably be 50, 60, 70 percent greater -- and the total pollution at least 80 percent lower," Freeman predicts.

He says it's possible to make such dramatic cuts because operations are so dirty now. Local air-quality officials say the ports pump out more pollution than all 6 million cars in the region.

'The Green Cowboy'

Freeman is 80 years old. He's one of the grandfathers of the clean-air business. He helped to create the Environmental Protection Agency 35 years ago. His granddaughters gave him the nickname "the green cowboy," and it stuck. He says he knows it is possible to slash pollution from a huge, powerful industry because he's done it before.

"When Jimmy Carter named me the head of the Tennessee Valley Authority in '77, TVA was the largest sulfur polluter in the country," Freeman says. "EPA was suing us, the state of Alabama was suing us -- it was that bad. We worked out a settlement, and in three years' time, we cut the sulfur [emissions] in half."

Since Freeman arrived at the port of Los Angeles last fall, he's been telling industries to consider radical changes -- such as switching to trucks that run on electricity or natural gas instead of diesel.

He has also suggested the adoption of a whole new transportation system for cargo. Such a system, Freeman says, would transport containers "non-stop, by clean electricity, all the way to the WalMart distribution center and the Target distribution center and keep them off the highways and off petroleum. That's what we're going to do."

Freeman also plans to slash emissions from ships. Right now, ships use something called bunker fuel, which is 50-100 times dirtier than the fuel used by diesel trucks. He says ships could plug into electric power from shore, or they could use cleaner fuel and pollution-control equipment. Either way, he says, ships will do something to clean up their act.

"We're the landlord of this huge operation," he says. "They're all tenants. They all want a few more acres, they want a concession. Let me tell you, folks, they're not going to get it unless they clean up."

Freeman is not the only one pushing for cleaner ports. The state of California is on the verge of requiring ships to use lower-sulfur fuel in their smaller engines when they are near port. And starting in July, California will require trucks and dock equipment to use ultra low-sulfur diesel.

Going Green for Greenbacks

On board one big container ship, the MOL Efficiency, Capt. Hitatoshi Ito says he has already tried lower-sulfur fuel in his engines, and it works.

"We can use [it], no problem," Ito says. "The problem is cost."

But if that's the price of entry into the Port of Los Angeles, his company, Mitsui OSK Lines, is ready to pay it. Because this is where they do the most business.

Based in Tokyo, Mitsui OSK is one of the world's largest steamship lines. Frank Paisano runs the company's U.S. terminals. He says he'd be willing to replace the 80 big diesel trucks the company uses now to haul containers around terminals. But he needs to be sure that some cleaner truck will do the job.

"It's costing us a lot of money," Paisana says. "We're sitting here saying, 'We'll do it. Can you guarantee me they work? Just show us one that'll work.'"

Some representatives of the shipping industry want consistent international rules for ports. If the Port of Los Angeles sets its own rules and pushes too hard, critics argue, ships will go elsewhere.

Freeman scoffs at that idea, especially since many of the goods that move through the L.A. port end up in California. He says the cost of the cleanup will be only a tiny fraction of the $150 billion in cargo that companies send through the port each year.

"They're not picking a fight with us," Freeman says. "We're the landlord with the best boathouse in the world. They want to keep coming, and they're going to come clean."

He says the Port of Los Angeles is going to make giant reductions in air-pollution levels each year starting in 2007. Within a decade, Freeman says, the port will no longer threaten public health.

Looking for More Than Words

Dr. John Miller, the emergency room doctor with the house on the beach, likes what he hears from Freeman. But he and other community activists want action.

"I think it's admirable, and it's a change from six years ago," Miller says of Freeman's call to clean up the L.A. port. "But so far, it's been mostly just green talk, green spin, green wash. They still don't have a plan."

Miller says he and his fellow activists will keep the pressure on.

"If I could be a part of a group of citizens who can diminish even a fraction [of the air pollution at the port], I would have saved far more lives than I would ever save working as an ER doctor, trying to treat individual victims of this problem," Miller says. "We have to go after the source."

Freeman agrees. He says the port will release its plan to do so by the end of the month.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Shogren
Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.