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Once Rivals, Local Ports Clear Air in Partnership

With a joint plan to stem pollution, Long Beach and L.A. harbors chart a new cooperative course.

July 04, 2006|Jim Newton | Times Staff Writer

It was just over a year ago that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were engaged in a testy standoff with far-reaching implications for Southern California: Members of their governing commissions refused to attend each other's meetings and could not even agree on a baseline year for analyzing pollution caused by their facilities.

Last week, those same leaders announced a joint air-quality plan that reflected a significantly new approach to stemming pollution and profoundly changed the relationship between the historic antagonists that command the nation's first- and second-largest commercial harbors.

Many factors have contributed to the turn from competition to cooperation. The rising influence and changing views of labor, the growing power of environmental interests and the shifting winds of local politics all have played a part.

The result, said leaders of both ports and some outsiders, is a newly minted cooperation between two entities whose leaders have regarded each other with suspicion for decades. Indeed, when the two commissions met a few months ago, it was the first such joint session since 1929.

Those leaders now are attempting to chart a common course in enforcing pollution controls and other regulations on their customers -- one key plank of which was unveiled last week with their far-reaching proposal to reduce pollution from trains, ships and trucks that use the port by more than 50%.

Among the proposed requirements: Ships that use either the Long Beach or Los Angeles port will have to use cleaner fuels and electricity rather than diesel when tied up; in return, the two ports promise expansions that will allow shippers to increase their business in the region.

"Historically," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said last week, "what we've been doing with Long Beach ... was in competition."

Bob Foster, the new mayor of Long Beach, agreed: "There has been some tension."

That tension reflects the competition between the two ports and the different place each holds in its city.

Los Angeles' port, the nation's largest, encompasses 43 miles of waterfront and features 26 massive cargo terminals. It is a bustling and often gritty complex, through which moved nearly 7.5 million 20-foot equivalent containers last year. But it is appended to the rest of the city by the thin band of Los Angeles that reaches down to the coast.

Long Beach, by contrast, is nestled directly next to its booming port, which shipped 6.7 million of those same containers in 2005. It covers 3,200 acres and is responsible for about one of every eight jobs in the city.

Together, the shipping centers generate more than 500,000 Southern California jobs, dwarfing other major industries in the region. But the ports also cough up pollution: Trucks stream in and out of the complexes, and the cargo ships that moor there bellow thick smoke, heavy with particulates. A single tanker that burns dirty fuel can produce as much air pollution as 12,000 cars. That pollution wafts across the entire region, with Long Beach being especially hard-hit.

Faced with growing community concern about that pollution and with the realization that neither port, acting alone, could arrest it, the two began to send out cooperative feelers last year.

Officials and others said one early and important move was Villaraigosa's selection of S. David Freeman, formerly the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and a fervent environmentalist, to lead Los Angeles' Board of Harbor Commissioners. Villaraigosa staffed the balance of the commission with advocates for labor, the environment and the community.

With Freeman's enthusiastic endorsement, the commission hired the former No. 2 official of the Long Beach port, Geraldine Knatz, as executive director of the Los Angeles port. In years past, that might have contributed to the rivalry. But in this case, Knatz, who took over the Los Angeles port in January, has served as a bridge.

Richard Steinke, once Knatz's boss at the Port of Long Beach, said he viewed her departure as a loss to Long Beach but a boon to regional cooperation. "It was our contribution to the greater good," he said.

The colorful Freeman, who at 80 still sports a cowboy hat and speaks in a Tennessee drawl, describes Knatz as "110 pounds soaking wet" and admires her work ethic: "She gets up at 4:45 in the morning, and kicks butt all day." By all accounts, Knatz has energized the Los Angeles port and solidified its relations with her former employer in Long Beach.

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