For decades, the San Pedro Bay port complex—the busiest in the U.S.—has been a known source of pollution, particularly in the Wilmington, West Long Beach and San Pedro areas, leading officials to launch a massive effort to curb emissions from thousands of trucks that ferry goods from the ports to warehouses across the region.

Six years ago port officials began a contentious review of their Clean Air Action Plan, asking the public to provide input on whether to require zero-emission trucks such as electric or hydrogen-fuel cells, or allow those powered by natural gas, marketed as “near-zero” emission trucks.

On Monday, a joint investigation by the Los Angeles Times and the news outlet Floodlight in partnership with the Guardian found that gas companies may have tried to wield influence in 2017 by paying at least 20 local residents to push for natural gas trucks during public meetings and press conferences. A company called Method Campaign Services was paid at least $10,000 by Clean Energy Fuels Corp., which owns natural gas fueling stations, according to the Times report.

At least some of the residents did not know they were taking the side of fossil fuels, having been told they were “standing up for sustainability” as part of an environmental campaign, the Times reported.

Taylor Thomas, co-executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said she and others were at those meetings, advocating for cleaner trucks. She said it was obvious some of those in support of natural gas trucks had similar talking points, and were vague about where they were from.

“We just didn’t have a way of proving it because we didn’t know who was behind it,” Thomas said.

It’s difficult, she said, for a grassroots organization like hers to match the voice of a big corporation that can pay for its support.

Ultimately, the gas industry’s campaign was successful and the ports approved the push for natural gas vehicles in the short-term, while maintaining its long term goal of reaching zero-emissions within 20 years.

“It’s really disheartening,” Jennifer Ganata, senior staff attorney for Communities for a Better Environment, said of the Times report. She hopes that public leaders will see this information about the payouts and change their minds.

But Port of Long Beach officials told the Post on Monday that the pro-natural gas campaign did not influence the decision to use the fossil fuel as a transitional power source while electric truck technology becomes more readily available for commercial use. Heather Tomley, managing director of planning and environmental affairs for the port, said both ports hosted numerous public meetings and workshops with “very active” public comment during the two-year process leading up to the adoption of the 2017 CAAP update.

“We had heard that it was an organized process at the time,” Tomley said, adding that there was more community engagement than the “limited forums those folks were participating in.”

Tomley declined to comment specifically on the actions of Method, noting that often multiple groups have views on a particular topic and have different strategies to engage in public debate. As agencies working to set policy, however, Tomley said transparency is important and the ports should always try to be aware of whether public commenters are paid by groups with a financial interest in the decision being made.

The update to the Clean Air Action Plan set aggressive zero-emissions goals, Tomley said, with terminal equipment to be weaned off fossil fuels by 2030 and road trucks by 2035. The state, meanwhile, has set a goal of all trucks reaching zero-emissions by 2045. But in the meantime, natural gas is a positive step toward those goals, Tomley said.

Electric and other renewable-energy trucks are still not commercially available in large numbers, as the technologies are still being fine-tuned, Tomley said.

“They haven’t been fully demonstrated and tested, they’re not available today,” Tomley said. “There was a desire to look at what types of technologies could be available to address immediate needs—not losing focus on where we want to go but what we can do right now to fill the gap.”

“We don’t want older diesel trucks to be replaced with slightly cleaner diesel trucks in the near term,” she added.

Since its original adoption in 2006, the CAAP has resulted in substantial emission reductions from 1990 levels, according to data presented in the 2017 update, exceeding port goals. Diesel particulate matter decreased 87%, nitrogen oxides decreased 56% and sulfur oxides were almost fully eliminated. Greenhouse gas emissions also dropped 18%.

The use of natural gas-powered trucks sets the port up for a more steady decline in emissions until zero-emission options come online, Tomley said. She highlighted the California Air Resources Board’s recent adoption of its Advanced Clean Truck regulation that requires manufacturers to sell zero-emissions trucks as an increasing percentage of their annual sales in the state beginning in 2024.

Thomas, of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said residents need to hold decision-makers to account, though acknowledged that it’s tough for some to participate because many residents in the Harbor Area are low-income, working class, have kids and multiple jobs.

But “as long as there’s no attention to their decisions, then they’re just gonna get away with making poor choices,” she said of elected leaders.

Post reporter Crystal Niebla contributed to this story

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.