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Hahn's Harbor Pollution Plan Faces an Uncertain Future

Panel rushes to complete work before Antonio Villaraigosa takes office as mayor.

June 22, 2005|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

A long-awaited plan to reduce air pollution at the Port of Los Angeles will land on Mayor James K. Hahn's desk after a task force completed its work Tuesday, outlining 68 pollution control measures estimated to cost more than $11 billion over the next 20 years.

But the future of the ambitious plan, which air regulators project will prevent 2,200 premature deaths from pollution-related diseases, remains uncertain.

Hahn leaves office on June 30 and Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa has not said what he will do with the proposal. And port-related businesses, such as the railroads, have expressed concerns about the cost and effectiveness of the measures.

A blue ribbon panel, named by Hahn last year, finished the report after a grueling eight-hour session that featured intense debate between industry attorneys and air pollution officials.

As hopes dimmed that the group would agree on all aspects of the final report, its co-chairwoman, Harbor Commissioner Camilla Townsend, announced that she and co-chair Thomas Warren, another harbor commissioner, would forward the report to the mayor with the recommendation that it be sent to the Harbor Commission to take action. That meant the 21-member group did not take a final vote in which the five industry representatives probably would have dissented.

The plan won praise from regulators and community, environmental and union representatives.

"This is a great start for the new era of responsible growth at the port," said task force member Gail Ruderman Feuer, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Wayne Nastri, regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, praised the report in a letter, saying that its control measures "provide a road map for ports throughout our nation and around the globe."

Others on the task force said they are concerned that some of the suggested ways to reduce pollution may prove too expensive or unfeasible.

"We were asked to come up with reasonable measures," said task force member Sharon Rubalcava, an attorney representing Pacific Energy. "Some of the measures are realistic measures, but others are speculative."

Representatives of the two major railroads serving the port, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, were outspoken in their criticism of the proposed measures to reduce locomotive emissions. They maintained that the South Coast Air Quality Management District did not account for the fact that the same locomotives serve the Los Angeles port and the Port of Long Beach, meaning the entire fleet would need to be retrofitted or replaced, railroad attorneys said.

"We will present a document to the mayor as we agreed," said Union Pacific attorney Carol Harris. "But there needs to be a lot more review of the measures for our industry."

But Norman Tuck, who represents the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the task force, said it is time for industries operating at the port to pay to reduce pollution significantly. "I wanted the whole industry's feet to the fire," he said.

The Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex has emerged as the region's single largest air polluter in recent years, amid the sharp increase in imports from Asia that has made it the largest seaport in the United States.

But as the ports have played an increasingly important role in the Los Angeles-area economy, the public's concerns have grown about the health effects of diesel emissions from ships, trains and trucks. Diesel fumes in high doses have been linked to lung cancer as well as cardiac problems.

Hahn pledged to rein in future increases in port emissions.

The Harbor Commission charged the port staff with creating a so-called no net increase plan to keep pollution at 2001 levels. Hahn, however, rejected the plan and appointed the task force.

With Hahn about to leave office, task force members rushed to complete the report, exchanging drafts by e-mail and conferring in lengthy conference calls.

The sharpest divisions between industry representatives and other members arose over the projected costs of the measures and how to calculate their effects on human health.

That debate mapped out an unusually stark cost-benefit scenario, balancing a price tag estimated at $11 billion to $15 billion for the antipollution controls against a projected $20-billion benefit in prolonging human life.

Regional, state and federal regulators strongly endorsed calculations prepared by the state Air Resources Board.

Tuesday's meeting was scheduled to be the last for the task force. But Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the harbor area, announced that she wants the group to continue. "I would like to get you connected to the larger audience of the city of Los Angeles," she said.

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