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A Start in Fixing Port Smog

August 25, 2004

If the soot and fumes rising from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach wafted out of a factory smokestack rather than the diesel engines in thousands of idling trucks and docked ships, local leaders would have long ago demanded a fix. That there has been little progress toward cutting toxic emissions speaks to the scope of the problem and the deep fears that putting a lid on pollution would smother port growth. A bill close to approval in the Legislature offers a modest start on clearing the air over the harbor.

Ports flounder in a regulatory Bermuda Triangle when it comes to pollution control. Local regulators can order emissions cuts at refineries, dry cleaners and other fixed facilities, but their jurisdiction does not include container ships and trucks. State rules target cars and trucks, but federal law bars California from regulating large container ships and tankers.

A 1999 study by the Air Quality Management District found that diesel emissions were responsible for 71% of the cancer risk from air pollution in the Los Angeles Basin. Because the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are the biggest single air polluter and a major source of diesel emissions in the region, residents in San Pedro, Wilmington and Long Beach have borne the brunt of that increased cancer risk -- and they're angry and scared. Similar hot zones surround other U.S. ports, but the problem has become acute in Southern California because port traffic is soaring.

The bill, by Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), would require the ports to cap air pollution at or below 2004's already-high levels. The legislation, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, does not dictate what port officials should do, simply insisting that they do something.

As part of a new deal by L.A. City Hall and various parties active at the port, terminal operators will open their gates for shipping during off-peak hours, a move that should ease truck congestion -- and emissions. There are obvious next steps: State and local funds have already helped retrofit with cleaner engines some of the dirtiest trucks hauling cargo into and out of the port. An estimated 6,000 more need overhauling; the ports and the state together could cover that cost. Also, cleaner-burning diesel fuel is now available for ships; the European Union is considering mandating its use by ships that dock at European ports. The Los Angeles-Long Beach ports, the largest in the nation, could do the same.

Separate versions of Lowenthal's AB 2042 have passed in the two houses of the Legislature, and lawmakers in the Assembly are now reconciling them. Shipping and business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, oppose the legislation out of concern that it would smother growth. But it is just a small, sensible step toward solving an urgent problem, and if it gets to the governor, he should sign it.

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