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Doomsday looming for many truckers at Los Angeles and Long Beach ports

Clean-air guidelines banning older rigs and those without diesel particulate filters take effect Jan. 1. Many drivers says the changes are just too costly.

November 27, 2009|By Patrick J. McDonnell
  • Filberto Cervantes turns in for the night in the cab of his rig, where he's been sleeping for the last three months. He is one of thousands of truckers who starting Jan. 1 will have to comply with clean-air guidelines.
Filberto Cervantes turns in for the night in the cab of his rig, where he's… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Filiberto Cervantes has already separated from his wife and kids, lost his car, moved into his truck and says he subsists largely on a diet of $1 cheese burritos. But Jan. 1 looms like a date with the grim reaper himself.

"The first of the year will probably be the end of my family," said Cervantes, showing a visitor his big-rig cab turned dwelling, now parked in a fast-food lot in Long Beach. "I don't know what's next."

Cervantes is among thousands of truckers servicing the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex who are facing a day of reckoning this New Year's. That's because Jan. 1 is the day new clean-air guidelines go into effect at the ports, banning all pre-1994 trucks -- as well as 1994-2003 rigs that have not been retrofitted with costly diesel particulate filters.

The bans are part of the much-acclaimed "clean trucks" initiative that authorities say has already cut toxic emissions about 70% since its introduction in October 2008 at the nation's busiest harbor complex. Parallel state clean-air regulations also go into effect Jan. 1.

Many laud the move toward greener technology in the so-called diesel alley corridor of south L.A. County, where port pollution has been blamed for elevated cancer rates, widespread asthma and other health ailments. Ports nationwide are considering similar bans.

While no one knows for sure, some estimate that the ban will deny more than 5,000 truckers access to their principal source of employment. Many, like Cervantes, are already reeling from the effects of the recession, living paycheck to paycheck.

About 20,000 truckers are registered to work at the port complex, officials say, but regular users amount to about half that number.

Those affected are mostly working-class immigrants from Mexico and Central America who were able to make a living in what was long a largely unregulated, and freely polluting, industry. But clean-air concerns have changed all that.

"This is hitting us hard," said Nelson Romero, president of the National Port Drivers Assn., a group that says it has more than 1,000 members and is seeking to extend the Jan. 1 deadline. "It's not fair that everything falls on us."

The truckers group staged a noisy protest in downtown Los Angeles earlier this month, driving their rigs around City Hall. But officials say an extension is not in the cards.

"We do sympathize with these guys -- everyone's struggling to hold on to a job these days," said Art Wong, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. "But the public health risk here is so great that we need to move ahead with this ban on the trucks."

Most truckers have known about the impending ban for more than a year.

Some managed to take advantage of government subsidies to purchase new, "clean" trucks, costing more than $100,000. Others were able to retrofit their older models with filters -- a $20,000 stopgap until 2012, when all rigs not meeting 2007 clean-air standards will be banned from the ports.

"I don't think I could have afforded a new truck without the government's help," said Alejandro Flores, 45, who used a government grant to purchase a 2009 rig that runs on liquefied natural gas.

But truckers say those with new or retrofitted vehicles are a distinct minority. Many had bad credit or simply could not afford the monthly payments, even with subsidies.

"I thought about buying a new truck, but nobody could guarantee me the work I need to pay it off," said Jose Rodriguez, who was buffing the front fender of his 1998 Freightliner, one of scores of trucks waiting in line on a recent evening to pick up loads at the Port of Long Beach.

Rodriguez, who has been a trucker for two decades, says he's not sure what he's going to do come Jan. 1.

"I've supported my family this way for many years," said Rodriguez, 44, a native of El Salvador and father of two who lives in Riverside County. "Now, my wife is worried. I'm worried."

Several truckers in line complained that they were lucky to earn $200 in a 15-hour day, less than half of what they could have netted two years ago. They say companies have slashed rates and passed along costs. Business at the ports is down 15% to 20%.

"We're like slaves," said Federico Garcia, 37, of Lynwood, who said he had already sold his old rig and was working as a company driver now. "We've lost our freedom."

Some community activists who pushed for a cleanup sympathize with the truckers' plight. They point to official assurances that large shipping concerns, not drivers, would pay the price for the cleanup

"We need clean air, but not on the backs of the truckers," said Martha Cota, 46, a long-time Long Beach resident who suffers from asthma, as do her two sons.

Many truckers and their allies complain that much of the public funding went to big trucking firms. Trucking giant Swift Transportation, for instance, received almost $12 million to bring 591 clean trucks into the port. Another major national player, Knight Transportation, was paid $4.4 million to bring in 172 clean trucks.

Officials deny any favoring of big companies. Much of the more than $200 million in clean-truck subsidies went to small firms, often family-owned, said John Holmes, operations director at the Port of Los Angeles. Government aid has helped offset the costs of about 4,000 clean trucks, he said.

"There was no focus on anybody who was bigger than anyone else," said Holmes, who visited the 25 largest U.S. trucking firms to promote the program and ensure there were enough participants. "We're in a delicate balancing act here, too. We want responsible companies in this."

Cervantes was among dozens of soon-to-be unemployed truckers meeting recently at a church in Long Beach. All owned their own rigs. They spoke of losing homes and families, of not being able to pay medical bills, and of a future filled with uncertainty.

"There will be no Christmas for us this year," said Romero of the port drivers association.

patrick.mcdonnell @latimes.com

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