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An update to the port’s Clean Trucks Program—which aims to reduce the port’s pollution emissions—was met with criticism from near-zero-emission truckers over whether they should be exempt from fees imposed by the Port of Long Beach.

While the port approved in spring a new entrance fee for trucks failing to meet low-emission standards, there’s an ongoing debate about whether near-zero-emission trucks—powered by natural gas—should benefit from the same fee exemptions as zero-emission trucks—powered by battery or fuel-cell—that seek to incentivize greener technology.

Both the boards for the Port of Long Beach and Port of Los Angeles continue to discuss how to update their shared Clean Trucks Program, but face the challenge of following a strict path of becoming zero-emission ports by 2031 per the Clean Air Action Plan, while also recognizing that zero-emission trucks are “not yet feasible and commercially available,” said Heather Tomley, managing director of Planning and Environmental Affairs for the Port of Long Beach.

“The truckers can’t go to the truck yard and drive with a zero emissions truck today,” Tomley said.

What is on the market right now? Near-zero, along with traditional diesel trucks.

There are about 8,000 older traditional diesel trucks that ferry goods from the ports to warehouses or other destinations, and Greg Roche, vice president for Sustainability Trucking, of Clean Energy, wants them to be replaced with near-zero trucks because he said it’s the most cost-effective option.

Currently, Roche said that there are roughly 800 near-zero trucks deployed at the local ports—600 of them that are 12 years old and 200 “new generation” trucks that are two years old.

These truckers are concerned that they made a mistake in making an early purchase,” Roche said about near-zero truckers.

Roche and others say near-zero trucks should be exempt from the entrance fee, which is $10 per 20-foot equivalent truck, through at least the end of 2031 or longer.

Bob Foster, the former mayor who is now a director on boards for two natural gas companies and a trucking company, agrees with the move, adding that doing so will dissuade truckers from buying the cheaper diesel trucks; traditional diesel trucks are a large source of pollutants like nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, main contributors to smog.

“Very few people are going to buy much cleaner—both in terms of carbon and in particulates—near-zero trucks, unless you provide an exemption in the container fee,” Foster said.

But while truckers who purchased near-zero feel they are unfairly missing out on the exemptions, some environmentalists don’t think those trucks are clean enough.

Danny Gamboa, director of Healthy Active Streets and who has also been a long-time trucker, said the near-zero trucks will still continue to dirty the air of communities burdened by the proximity to the port, a large pollution source. The process of extracting natural gas known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” requires high-pressure injection of large amounts of water and chemicals into an oil or gas reservoir to fracture the reservoir rock and allow oil or natural gas to flow back to the well; it’s been a procedure contended against locally in the past.

“The pollution burden still lies with that whole technology, which is the near-zero emissions, and that’s why a lot of advocates have advocated for zero,” Gamboa said.

While he sympathizes with near-zero truckers, he believes the nearby communities, most of them low-income people of color that experience high rates of cancer and respiratory problems, deserve clean air and water for generations onward.

“Zero-emission or nothing,” he said.

The boards are still hung on the decision, and Tomley said that the board members “indicated that they are supportive” of the fee exemption for near-zero truckers.

“I can only say this: We’re on it,” Bonnie Lowenthal, president of the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners, said in response to questions about the program during the board’s most recent meeting on July 27.

The next virtual Harbor Commission meeting will take place Aug. 10 at 1:30 p.m.