Docking Diesel Pollution

How NRDC is protecting the health of communities by helping clear the air at some of the world’s busiest ports.

The highway traffic jam: a dozen lanes of cars at a standstill, tailpipes spewing invisible exhaust into a hazy, still sky. It’s a stereotypical Los Angeles image, up there with palm trees and the Hollywood sign. Meanwhile, another major source of the city’s congestion and air pollution hides in plain sight. About 20 miles south of downtown L.A., the sprawling twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach—and the network of diesel-powered ships, trains, and trucks they rely on—also emit huge amounts of toxins into the atmosphere.

The Port of Los Angeles
Hal Bergman/Getty Images

The busiest port complex in the nation, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are also the largest source of air pollution in the Los Angeles region. The nearby communities of San Pedro, Wilmington, and West Long Beach—where some houses sit as little as 500 feet from the ports and many residents are low-income people of color—bear the brunt of it. On top of the noise, traffic, and bright lights that last into the night, residents contend with a cloud of toxic gases and particle pollution that can cause respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, birth defects, and premature death.

These neighborhoods are called the Diesel Death Zone for a reason: The health risks from diesel pollution are significantly higher than in the rest of the region. After witnessing rampant development at the ports, concerned homeowners reached out to NRDC for help in 2001. They had good cause to be worried, it turns out. After an 18-month legal battle, an appeals court found that by not properly evaluating the community impacts of building a new terminal for its tenant, China Shipping, the Port of Los Angeles had violated the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s bedrock environmental law.

The decision forced the port to stop construction until it completed a full environmental review. Because the port was eager to complete the new terminal, it was willing to negotiate, taking in the concerns of NRDC and its allies in the community. “It was the perfect storm to get the port to come to the settlement table,” says Morgan Wyenn, an attorney at NRDC. “They were willing to spend a lot of money so they could build their terminal, keep their tenant, and move forward with their business.”

As part of the China Shipping settlement agreement, finalized in 2003, the Port of Los Angeles established a $50 million fund to address air quality and aesthetics. At NRDC’s urging, the agreement also required the port to create a green terminal. The first of its kind, the port facility required ships to plug in to shoreside power while docked instead of running their diesel engines. It also compelled operators of the vehicles that serve the docks to stop buying dirty diesel.

Of course, more work needs to be done—and, unfortunately, redone—to reach the goal of achieving zero emissions from our freight transportation system. Recent revelations that the Port of Los Angeles has failed to implement several key pollution-cutting measures at two of its terminals, including the China Shipping facility, coupled with its approval of a new, $500 million rail yard development nearby (which NRDC is also battling in court), prove that “we can’t let our guard down,” says Melissa Lin Perrella, a senior attorney at NRDC. “Just like the communities we represent, we’re in this for the long haul.”

Regardless of this setback, the China Shipping court victory set in motion a shift in the way both ports operated, jump-starting a commitment to “growing green.” By 2006, the ports had created their first joint Clean Air Action Plan, which included, at the urging of NRDC and its partners, a major initiative to clean up 15,000 trucks that serve the ports—something NRDC helped defend all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Five years later, the ports credited these programs with reducing total port pollution by 45 percent and truck pollution by an astounding 80 percent.

These efforts, along with increasingly strict statewide air-quality regulations for diesel exhaust, will prevent an estimated 10,000 premature deaths over the course of 15 years. More recently, funds from the China Shipping settlement were allocated to a one-mile demonstration project of the first zero-emissions truck highway, which could fundamentally alter how cargo is shipped in the future.

NRDC’s advocacy at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach hasn’t just changed the way goods move through Southern California; it has become a model for ports everywhere. NRDC is also working on behalf of communities near rail yards, busy truck corridors, and distribution centers all over the country. With 13 million people—and 3.5 million children—in the United States living in the vicinity of transportation facilities, the implications of this effort can’t be overstated.

The organization has also taken lessons learned here to China, where air pollution causes 1.2 million premature deaths every year. The country is home to seven of the world’s ten busiest container ports, yet their pollution is largely unmonitored and unregulated. One container ship alone, for example, can emit as much diesel pollution as 500,000 trucks. Yet Hong Kong is already making great progress to clean up its ports, and China, fresh out of the COP21 meetings in Paris, announced a plan in 2015 to start controlling its shipping emissions—an encouraging sign of the country’s commitment to climate action.

“It’s been a tough sell,” says NRDC senior attorney David Pettit. China’s legal environment often presents challenges, and the priority of economic expansion has left the government resistant to change. But the example set in California shows that “air quality continues to get better while GDP continues to grow,” Pettit says. “My message to China is: ‘You can do this, too.’”


NRDC’s first chief equity and justice officer, Melissa Lin Perrella, believes the way to strengthen advocacy work is to prioritize community partners who are closest to the problem—and often closest to the solution.

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