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Labor Lends Its Clout to Port Pollution Battle

Dockworkers union says it will pressure shipowners to cut diesel fumes at all West Coast facilities. Emissions have been linked to asthma.

January 28, 2006|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

The powerful union representing 60,000 West Coast dockworkers is stepping publicly into the port air pollution arena for the first time, saying it will pressure seaports and shipowners to slash emissions.

Leaders of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on Monday will join Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in Long Beach to announce a campaign to reduce pollution in seaports from Seattle to San Diego. The union is expected to focus on ships because they are the single biggest source of port pollution but are largely immune from U.S. environmental laws.

West Coast seaports handle most Asian exports entering the country and are integral engines for the U.S. economy.

But mounting pollution from diesel-burning ships, trucks and trains is heightening health concerns in cities such as Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland and Seattle. Diesel fumes, a carcinogen, have also been linked to asthma, other respiratory problems and heart disease.

Those concerns have triggered emotional battles in Los Angeles and Long Beach over the last three years, as residents opposed port expansion plans and business leaders worried that the regional economy could suffer.

Now, dockworkers union leaders say they have become so concerned about the potential for related health problems -- among their members and in the community -- that they are making clean air a priority.

Because of the union's size and clout, its efforts could significantly speed up clean air initiatives, union and business officials said Friday.

"This is the most significant step in this discussion probably in the past five years," said Wally Baker, a senior vice president at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. who has been studying how port pollution affects the economy. "There couldn't be a better gift that [the union] could give to Southern California at this time than reducing diesel pollution and making a difference in this environment."

Harvey Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in labor issues, said the ILWU can play a pivotal role because it is the ports' principal union and has a history of social vision.

"It is an important moment," Shaiken said. "To be an environmentalist at the ports both builds an alliance with the community and addresses a very key issue for its own members. They're breathing that air."

ILWU officials plan to target the giant container ships responsible for most of the diesel fumes in port cities nationwide. In the Port of Los Angeles alone in 2001, ships contributed 55% of all diesel emissions and 36% of all emissions of nitrous oxides, a key component of smog.

The union on Monday plans to call for a 20% reduction in emissions by 2010 for all ships calling on West Coast ports.

"Ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach are taking significant steps, but more needs to be done everywhere," said union spokesman Steve Stallone, adding that the union plans to reach out to other unions on the East Coast and overseas.

The Port of Los Angeles is the nation's largest seaport, followed by the Port of Long Beach. Together, they comprise the single largest air polluter in Southern California, air regulators say.

Officials at both ports have expressed fears that, if they impose too many clean-air restrictions, companies will simply divert their ships to other ports with less stringent rules.

But the San Francisco-based ILWU represents workers at all West Coast ports, so it could make it harder for shippers to pick and choose among ports, said ILWU member Joe Radisich, a crane operator whom Villaraigosa appointed a port commissioner last year. Radisich introduced the idea of a clean-air initiative to ILWU officers in December, and they agreed to push forward, Stallone said.

The union's importance in U.S. global trade came into focus in 2002, when a lockout at West Coast ports closed down trade and cost billions in lost sales. The current contract expires in 2008. The union negotiates its contracts with the Pacific Maritime Assn., which handles contracts and payroll for shipping lines and terminal operators at all West Coast ports.

In response to the ILWU initiative, Jim McKenna, the association's chief executive, said Friday: "Reducing emissions and expanding port capacity are connected, and both are a priority for the industry."

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