Last Monday evening the South Coast Air Quality Management District held an “Air Quality Institute” session at Long Beach City College.  Invited to the intimate roundtable discussion were a variety of stakeholders in the ongoing port/environment debate.  The proceedings were moderated, and monitored intently, by Seventh District Councilmember Tonia Reyes Uranga, who is also a member of the air district Governing Board, and new 55th-District Assemblymember Warren Furutani.  The Assemblymember commented on the need for a short-range plan to achieve immediate air quality improvements for people living near the region’s transportation corridors.


South Coast AQMD Senior Policy Advisor Peter Greenwald provided a brief orientation to the daunting air quality challenges that face our region.  One of his slides showed that even if we were to “zero out” all the emissions coming from international goods movement, we still would not be able to meet health-based standards for diesel particulate matter in 2020.  Another showed that to meet similar standards for nitrogen oxides (also called NOx) in 2023, about half of the needed reductions will come from what’s called the “black box” – a way of saying that we don’t yet know what technologies or strategies will work.  His “take-away messages”:  the health impacts are substantial; technological solutions are available; all levels of government must act.


The ensuing discussion highlighted some of the divisions of opinion and lack of trust that continue to make consensus and progress elusive.  Community members emphasized that the ports are owned by and answerable to the public, and asked that lease agreements between ports and their tenants be made public.  Such leases are one of the key tools the ports have to enforce environmental standards (among others) on port operations.  Some attendees continued to express doubt about industry motivations and transparency.


One hopeful point raised was the role of technology.  No one disagreed that technology incentives would be helpful.  Industry attendees cautioned, though, that regulations requiring emission reductions shouldn’t simply shift an emissions problem from one place to another (for example, generating electricity for port operations from coal).


I made a rather half-baked point that night that I would like to say better here (hoping the electeds are still listening!).  I observed that interest in electric cars is growing as gasoline prices have risen to $4 to $5 a gallon – a sign that people – and companies – will almost always tend to do what’s cheapest.  What I didn’t manage to say is, first, this human behavior is something to keep in mind when designing incentives, and, last, what we need to do is make being clean and green the cheapest option.


I could (and hope to) devote another column to how to do that.  However, now I want to turn to the other big news of the week – and I don’t mean the earthquake.  The LB Post reported that the trucking industry finally filed suit against the Long Beach and Los Angeles port trucking plans on Monday.  Environmental groups have asked to join the lawsuit in defense of both ports’ programs.  I have also learned that the trucking industry has filed a separate request for an injunction, meaning that both port truck programs would be stalled in full until the legal issues are resolved – a process that won’t begin until a hearing on August 25th and probably won’t end before the programs’ intended start date of October 1.


The funny thing is, I can see both sides’ arguments.  When I look at some of the restrictions that would be placed on the operators of trucking businesses – whether they are companies or individuals – they do not seem workable.  You can put a placard or tracking device on a truck, but how can you keep a non-employee driver on the right side of the “line,” once it’s established, at all times, while still serving customers effectively?  On the other hand, there’s no question that individual truck owners, and probably some trucking companies, cannot afford to replace older equipment without help.  The public has a right to expect that each recipient will be accountable for public funds used to turn over the fleet quickly.  Maybe all legal cases are this thorny, but I think the judge taking on this one will earn his or her pay, and then some!


Bottom line:  How did we get here and could we have avoided this?  If the programs are halted before they even begin, then we will be stuck with the status quo:  truck fleet turnover at a pace dictated by the demise of older engines and the most charitable impulses of truck owners.  (State truck regulations may help accelerate change, but do not provide all the needed funding.)  And we already know the air quality impacts of the status quo.  I continue to believe that more dialogue among the stakeholders – in spite of the divisions of opinion and lack of trust – would help us find new ways to make being green and clean the cheapest option.  Happily, our elected officials are listening.