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Panel to Target Air Pollution at Southland Ports

November 05, 2005|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

The head of the region's smog-fighting agency, calling air pollution from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles its "single most important challenge," threatened Friday to clamp down on toxic emissions from ships, trains and trucks serving the ports.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District will develop new rules "to the maximum extent of its authority" to force those reductions unless port officials move more swiftly on their own, Chairman William A. Burke said.

Burke announced the new initiative to clean up the nation's two largest seaports and said a comprehensive plan for that cleanup will go before the board in early January.

Ships, trucks and trains serving the ports produce more than 100 tons daily of nitrogen oxides, more than the combined emissions of all 6 million cars in the region, Burke said. They also produce 20% of the region's diesel emissions, which in total have been blamed for 1,700 premature deaths a year, he said.

The agency's planned action is the latest volley in an effort among governments and regulators to stem emissions from the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, which now ranks as the single largest air polluter in Southern California. The state Air Resources Board is due to act in December on rules to control emissions from port yard equipment and the auxiliary engines of oceangoing ships.

Recent studies on port air pollution have heightened health fears among residents living close to transportation corridors across Southern California, from the harbor to the rail yards and the warehouses of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

A state draft study in October found that diesel emissions from within the boundaries of the two ports are increasing human cancer risk as far as 15 miles inland, and other studies have linked air pollution to asthma and stunted lung growth among children.

The air district has traditionally had little control over port pollution because it largely regulates stationary sources, such as refineries and chemical plants. Ship and train emissions are generally a federal responsibility.

In the past two years, however, the agency has acted aggressively on a number of port matters, strongly criticizing a proposed Long Beach port expansion and taking a lead role in the design of a Los Angeles port anti-pollution plan.

Agency officials said Friday that their attorneys would help determine how much authority the agency has in port matters. Spokesman Sam Atwood said that the plan now being prepared could include these steps to regulate port emissions:

* Treating the ports as a single stationary source and setting an overall emissions limit for the entire complex.

* Setting speed limits on ships approaching the ports because emissions climb as speed increases.

* Limiting the sulfur content of fuels used in any equipment at the ports, including ships.

* Applying a current rule that prohibits a facility from becoming a public nuisance. For example, the agency used that rule in issuing a notice to the Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance after its Oct. 20 release of sulfur dioxide.

"These sources have gone relatively uncontrolled for way too many years," AQMD executive officer Barry Wallerstein said after the Friday meeting in Long Beach. "The governing board was quite clear that port emissions are near or at the top of AQMD's agenda."

Burke said he wants to meet with S. David Freeman, president of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, and Doris Topsy-Elvord, his counterpart at the Long Beach port, to discuss expedited measures to improve air quality.

In the past, the two ports have operated semi-autonomously in developing clean-air programs, but Burke said they must coordinate their strategies to prevent one port from gaining a competitive edge by imposing weaker controls.

Bob Kanter, planning director at the Long Beach port, said the initiative could be positive. "I don't think we can just keep going off on divergent paths," he said.

To make sure that the ports take steps to mitigate pollution from their expansion projects, Burke said the agency "will make full use" of the state environmental review process. The district used that process last year when it sharply criticized the Long Beach port's proposed Pier J expansion project.

The agency also plans to work with major ports in Asia to develop a plan for joint emission reduction measures, Burke said.

The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are the major U.S. entry point for Asian goods.

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