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Finally Tackling L.A.'s Worst Air Polluter

Harbor: Twin ports add more to smog than any other site, but have been little regulated. Officials seek to protect health but not hurt the economy.

February 10, 2002|GARY POLAKOVIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A container ship as long as three football fields glides into the still waters of the Port of Los Angeles, where it disgorges sneakers, electronic components and a plume of black exhaust.

With each docking and departure, one ship pumps an average of four tons of pollutants into the skies. On a typical day, 16 container ships arrive at the port complex that stretches from San Pedro to Long Beach, releasing more smog-forming gases than 1 million cars, or more than twice as much as all of the power plants in the Los Angeles Basin.

No other facility produces more air pollution than the port complex, and air quality officials have known it for a long time. Though strict regulations have been imposed on polluters across California, the L.A. ports have gone largely unregulated for a variety of reasons, from lack of jurisdiction over foreign-flagged ships to fears of losing trade to other cities.

Now, officials are struggling to craft new rules that will protect people's health without jeopardizing the economic benefits of being the nation's busiest waterfront. There's a lot on the line.

The Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex is a gateway to one quarter of a trillion dollars in Pacific Rim and Latin American trade. As trade continues to grow, ship emissions are expected to double in the next 20 years in Southern California.

And the big cargo ships are not the only serious source of pollution. Tugboats, harbor craft and fishing fleets add 11 tons daily, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Onshore, hundreds of trucks laden with computers from Japan, toys from China and furniture from Malaysia rumble over the Vincent Thomas Bridge toward distant cities. Smaller "yard tractors" scurry like beetles stacking containers on the docks under a pall of haze that stretches to the Long Beach skyline and beyond.

Though nearby communities such as Wilmington and San Pedro get the worst of it, onshore breezes blow the pollution inland, where it forms ozone, an acutely toxic gas, and haze that blankets suburban valleys. Smog causes bronchitis, lung irritation and chest pains. Microscopic specks of unburned fuel are linked to cancer, asthma and heart attacks.

Farther north, Santa Barbara County's chief smog fighter, Douglas Allard, has identified 102 smoky ships as "frequent fliers." They are vessels that routinely visit California waters, traveling the shipping lanes between the Channel Islands and the mainland, although there are no plans to clean them up.

In 15 years vessel smokestacks will account for two-thirds of the county's smog-forming gases, too much to maintain healthy, blue skies, Allard said.

Out in the open ocean, scientists say ship smog spreads farther than previously thought. Soot from smokestacks adds to haze and traps heat from the sun, which scientists say contributes to global warming.

"For most people, this is an invisible industry. You know when you get stuck behind a truck that smells dirty, but people are not even aware that 65% of all consumer goods are transported by ships," said James J. Corbett, professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware.

"When it comes to controlling emissions from ships," he said, "we're just at the beginning stages, about where we were in 1965 with cars. The industry is beginning to make the transition toward cleaning up, but it's the least regulated source of all."

Millions in Incentives for Cleaner Vessels

To control emissions from L.A.'s harbor, air quality officials have provided $22 million in incentives in the last few years for low-polluting barges, passenger ferries and tugboats.

Many of the giant cranes that unload cargo containers are now electric-powered. About two-thirds of the ships have reduced speed as they enter the harbors under a voluntary program, reducing nitrogen oxide emissions by about two tons daily.

Last year, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn persuaded the Harbor Commission to adopt a goal of "no net increase" in emissions from the port, although it is unclear how that will be achieved.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has primary authority over ship exhaust, two years ago enacted the first emissions standards for boats, including ferries, fishing vessels and tugboats. Those limits apply only to new vessels and take effect between 2004 and 2007.

A lawsuit by environmentalists forced the EPA to propose the nation's first emissions limits for oceangoing ships. A draft proposal covering new, U.S.-registered vessels is due April 30.

"We're stepping up to the plate. We're as concerned about this as anybody else," said Jean-Marie Revelt of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality.

But air pollution is outrunning the remedies.

In the next decade, cargo shipments are expected to grow 100%, port official say. Berths are expanding to accommodate increased traffic, high-speed rail lines are being built to move cargo more efficiently and ships are getting bigger and carrying more containers.

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