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National trucking group to sue ports over cleanup plan

July 26, 2008|Ronald D. White and Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writers

The American Trucking Assn. plans to file a lawsuit in Los Angeles federal court on Monday in an effort to block a plan by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to clean up the air by replacing an aging fleet of 16,000 trucks that spew deadly levels of toxic diesel emissions.

For decades, the ports have operated under a system in which individual truck owners transport a large portion of the container cargo that moves to and from the terminals. Because those drivers are legally considered independent operators, they cannot unionize, have no collective bargaining power and generally make so little money that they can afford only the oldest and more heavily polluting trucks.

But a coalition of grass-roots community groups, environmentalists and labor unions forced both ports to change their ways under threat of a separate lawsuit. Under a $1.6-billion cleanup plan, new trucks would be paid for through a $35 cargo fee on containers that move through the ports, which would be charged to the shippers.

The Port of Los Angeles' plan would set up trucking company franchises in which the drivers would become employees, based on the idea that only large-scale companies would have the wherewithal to maintain the new trucks.

The Port of Long Beach earlier had hoped to avoid a lawsuit by not mandating that drivers become employees, which would have left them responsible for their own maintenance and fuel costs. But like L.A.'s plan, it would require drivers to have special permits to operate at its terminals.

Curtis Whalen, head of the trucking association, stressed in an interview Thursday that his group was not opposed to the ports' goal of reducing diesel truck emissions by 80% within five years. Whalen added that he also supported the cargo fee, but he said that both ports have overstepped their authority in a way that "could not be tolerated."

The association is expected to argue in its lawsuit that both ports are trying to dictate terms to the nationally deregulated trucking industry, that the ports are making decisions governing interstate commerce and that their plans will make it difficult for small trucking companies to stay in business.

Whalen and other critics also contend that to obtain such operating permits would wrongly require delving deeply into the financial records of private businesses and interfere with the free flow of commerce.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement Friday that stopping the ports' plans would be an egregious mistake that would cost lives.

"When thousands of lives are cut short every year by toxic emissions from the port, we have a moral mandate to act. The health of our environment and the public is at stake, and it is time to hit the brakes on the 16,000 diesel-spewing trucks polluting our air every day," Villaraigosa said.

The pending legal battle has also forged some uncommon alliances. The Natural Resources Defense Council, which has pressured both ports to clean up their operations, will seek to intervene in the case on behalf of the ports to prevent the plans from being shelved, said David Pettit, a senior attorney in the council's Santa Monica office.

The Port of Los Angeles said it would have no comment until it had received a copy of the lawsuit. The Port of Long Beach's executive director, Richard D. Steinke, vowed to move forward.

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ronald.white@latimes.com

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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