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United on clean ports

July 03, 2006

EVERYONE IN LOS ANGELES may breathe a little easier someday thanks to the clean-air plan proposed last week by the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. The remarkable plan for the first time unites both ports with the state and federal regulators that oversee air quality, putting them all on the same page of a five-year effort to cut diesel particulate emissions in half. The ports are the biggest sources of pollution in Los Angeles, and diesel emissions have been clearly linked to cancer and other ailments. The plan also would significantly cut emissions of other toxins and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Of course, it's a cinch to draft a plan; much harder will be coming up with the money to implement and enforce it. Particularly hard hit will be the truckers who pick up containers at the ports and shuttle them across the state or nation. The plan calls for phasing out older, more polluting trucks, replacing them with vehicles that run on clean diesel or alternative fuels. This will cost an estimated $1.7 billion over five years, of which the ports plan to kick in about $200 million. The rest will be paid by the truckers or their employers, who will be encouraged to retrofit their vehicles through incentives -- such as express "green lanes" for clean trucks -- or penalties, such as higher fees for dirty trucks.

Shippers and rail operators also will face onerous restrictions and costs. Container ships, the biggest source of emissions at the ports, will have to switch to low-sulfur fuel while operating in port, slow down while within 40 nautical miles and either plug in to shore power while idling or use new technologies to reduce their emissions. Railroads will have to switch to clean locomotives. And the ports and private operators will face heavy costs to replace harbor craft and cargo-hauling equipment with cleaner models.

That's one good reason voters should take a careful look at the transportation infrastructure bond coming up on the November ballot. The bond would include $1 billion to improve air quality at the ports.

As for the shippers and railroads, they'll be offered incentives -- or face penalties -- just like the truckers to ensure compliance. That will doubtless create plenty of grumbling, but not all the news is bad for business. Many of these companies have long sought to expand but, nervous about lawsuits or trouble with regulators, the ports haven't certified an environmental study for a new project in six years. Now that all sides have signed on to the clean-air plan, these projects finally have a chance to get off the ground. As long as it's clean, harbor business can continue to grow and flourish.

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