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Cleaner port air, but how?

Legal tussles on trucker rules bedevil Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.

January 09, 2010|By Ronald D. White
  • Trucks move along S. Harbor Scenic Drive to and from the Pacific Container Terminal at the Port of Long Beach. As of Jan. 1, pre-1994 trucks and those not meeting at least 2004 emissions standards are banned.
Trucks move along S. Harbor Scenic Drive to and from the Pacific Container… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Not too long ago, the 10,500-acre complex at the southern tip of Los Angeles County wasn't just the home of the nation's busiest seaports, it was the graveyard where old trucks went to die.

Dented, rusting 1988-and-older rigs hauled cargo containers to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, earning the harbor the nickname of "diesel death zone."

On Jan. 1, the neighboring ports cruised past a major pollution-fighting milestone, banning trucks made before 1994 and those that don't meet at least 2004 emissions standards -- trucks such as the 15-year-old Freightliner once owned by Guido Perez. The Lancaster resident now drives a 2008 ultra-low-emission Peterbilt, one of more than 6,000 new trucks brought into cargo service at the ports in the last 15 months.

"It's a beautiful truck," Perez said. "I can't even smell the exhaust."

But for all the progress since mayors Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and Bob Foster of Long Beach launched the nation's most ambitious clean-trucks program at a ceremony Oct. 1, 2008, a new lawsuit shows that hardly anyone is completely happy with how the changes are being carried out.

At the heart of the conflict is the issue of whether drivers must work for trucking companies, as the Los Angeles clean-trucks program requires, or can remain self-employed, as Long Beach's plan allows. The Los Angeles effort is seen as pro-union because working for a trucking company makes drivers more likely to be recruited by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club recently sued Long Beach officials, accusing them of cutting a deal with the trucking industry that puts "the wolf in charge of the henhouse." They charged in Los Angeles Superior Court that Long Beach, in reaching a settlement that got it out of a lawsuit against the two ports brought by the American Trucking Assn., failed to seek public input. The settlement, the groups' lawsuit said, would leave Long Beach unable to "stop trucking companies from using dirty trucks that fail to meet environmental and safety standards."

Long Beach City Atty. Robert Shannon said municipal officials "believe these allegations have no merit."

On Monday, the American Trucking Assn. is to head to federal court seeking a summary judgment to prevent Los Angeles from executing its plan. The ATA says the Los Angeles port is violating federal deregulation laws by requiring drivers to give up independent owner-operator status and work for trucking companies, a mandate that is being phased in.

Perez, 53, is an owner-operator who says the clean-trucks program is working for him. Perez found his Peterbilt for $80,000 after the company he drives for said it would no longer give him work if he were using his old 1995 truck.

On Oct. 1, 2008, the ports had barred all 1988 and older trucks. As of Jan. 1 this year, all 1993 and older trucks are banned. Trucks built from 1994 to 2003 will be allowed access only if equipped with verified diesel emission control retrofits. Only 2004 and younger rigs can enter without question.

Since the restrictions were set, the California Air Resources Board has adopted similar rules for all ports and railroad yards in California.

The only thing Perez finds daunting is the economy, which he says is still slower than it has been in several years. Perez's usual gig is hauling borax from Trona, Calif., for a trucking company that seems committed to getting him enough work to keep up with his $1,600 monthly truck payment. He says it's "a lot more than my home mortgage."

But Rafael Dominguez, 31, said he has had a nightmare experience. Dominguez gave up his rig, a 1997 Volvo, after learning that a retrofit would cost more than the truck was worth. He said he worked out a "lease-to-own" deal in March of last year on a new rig bought by a local trucking company.

But Dominguez said the company, which he declined to identify, kept changing the rules on him, raising what he would have to pay for the lease, which began at $1,640 a month. Dominguez said the company set up an unfairly competitive system under which drivers who did the most work would be allowed to pay less. In November, Dominguez walked away from what he had already paid on the lease and became an employee of another firm.

"As an independent driver, I wasn't really independent at all. I had no rights, no benefits, no paid time off. The trucking company could say 'take it or leave it' and do anything they wanted," Dominguez said.

John Holmes, deputy executive director of operations for the Port of Los Angeles, doesn't know Dominguez or his situation. But he said that the port was trying to push the industry away from a system in which drivers were compelled to "undercut one another, always trying to be $5 cheaper than the next guy, at the expense of the environment."

Toward that end, the port shelled out $44 million in the form of $20,000-per-truck incentives.

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