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Port Cities Work to Rid Air of Pollutants

March 2, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

SAUL GONZALEZ, NewsHour Correspondent: With their sea air and ocean breezes, coastal communities are often seen as healthy alternatives to smoggy cities.

But in towns with big ports, breathing can be risky. Ports spew out a toxic brew of contaminants, making them major sources of air pollution.

That’s the case at the neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Together, they make up the largest and busiest harbor facility in the United States and one of the worst polluters in Southern California, according to Sam Atwood, with the region’s Air Quality Management District.

SAM ATWOOD, Air Quality Management District: The smog-forming emissions from the ports are greater than those emissions from all six million passenger vehicles here in Southern California. That gives you an idea of the magnitude.

SAUL GONZALEZ: On an average day, the ports emit some 10,000 tons of air pollutants. Most of the emissions come from ships. Heavy trucks and locomotives that haul cargo to and from the ports also pump out pollutants.

Air-monitoring stations in communities adjacent to the ports record dangerous levels of nitrogen oxide, as well as fine soot and sulfur oxides. The chemicals cause high rates of heart and lung problems among dock workers and area residents, according to public health experts.

The impact on local neighborhoods

SAUL GONZALEZ: One affected neighborhood is Wilmington, a largely Latino and immigrant community right next to the port of Los Angeles. At Wilmington's Public Health Care Center, physicians such as Dr. Shipra Bansal treat and track respiratory illnesses among the community's residents.

Six-year-old Jonathan Garcia is one of the clinic's many asthma patients.

DR. SHIPRA BANSAL, Physician: We're finding that the rates of asthma in the Wilmington community are actually one-and-a-half times that of asthma in Los Angeles county as a whole.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Bansal was an environmental scientist and activist who took up medicine after studying the health effects of air pollution generated by ports.

DR. SHIPRA BANSAL: New research is starting to show that products of combustion, 10 microns in diameter or smaller, can bypass the lungs' natural defenses and lodge themselves deeply into the lungs, causing irritation and inflammation.

And while we have known for a while that they can exacerbate asthma, we now are gaining evidence that they may actually be causing asthma.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Jonathan's father, Juan Garcia, says he and his wife have tried to protect their son from port-related pollution.

JUAN GARCIA, Resident Near Port (through translator): But what can we do? At night, we close all the windows to the house so we can keep out the smell from outside.

Global shipping regulations

SAUL GONZALEZ: Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, says requirements set by the ports will force global changes in the shipping industry.

GERALDINE KNATZ: I do think that we're setting a trend and changing the maritime industry internationally and that what happens here will benefit those other port communities, because if the ships are cleaner coming here, they're likely going to be cleaner going to other cities in the United States.

SAUL GONZALEZ: The new rules adopted by port officials go further than current federal and international guidelines and apply to both U.S. and foreign ships. Foreign-flag vessels account for about 95 percent of the big commercial ships in U.S. ports. The action, Knatz concedes, takes the ports into new legal waters.

GERALDINE KNATZ: I guess we're sticking our neck out, and we're trying to do some things, that people will question whether we, as ports, have the regulatory authority, and they may question it through litigation.

And, you know, as far as I'm concerned, if people want to sue us for trying to clean up the air, that's not a bad position to be in, because that means we're trying to do something.

SAUL GONZALEZ: The Environmental Protection Agency, which Knatz says should be doing more to help clean up America's ports, did not respond to our interview requests.

The EPA's position is that it prefers that the international body that regulates shipping adopt stronger air emissions rules, but if it doesn't, the agency has promised to take up the issue of pollution from foreign-flag vessels some time this year.

Dividing up the costs

SAUL GONZALEZ: The other contentious question for the ports' anti-pollution plan is: Who will pay for it? Industry says that implementing stringent rules would be costly and would drive business away.

GARY TOEBBEN, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce: It may be too ambitious for the industrial sector that is involved here.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, says the costs need to be shared.

GARY TOEBBEN: If, in fact, you implement every regulation called for and you implement it right away, the amount of burden to businesses could be so significant that they would not make the improvements.

SAUL GONZALEZ: What would they do?

GARY TOEBBEN: They wouldn't be able to operate at the ports, and those jobs would go somewhere else.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Others worry the burden of greening the ports will fall too heavily on taxpayers.

SPOKESPERSON: You should know that we have many, many environmental programs in place and operational.

SAUL GONZALEZ: To tout some of the highlights of the clean air program, port executives recently hosted a harbor tour for community activists, environmentalists, and local officials.

The advocates want business to pay its fair share of the plan's estimated $2 billion cost. Raphael Pizarro is with the Coalition for Clean Air.

RAFAEL PIZARRO, Coalition for Clean Air: There really should be money from the industrialists and from the shippers and the businesses that make money off of the ports. And so we're asking them, also, to ask industry to pay part of the bill of cleaning up the ports. Don't put it all on the public.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Environmental groups favor a $30 to $60 fee on every cargo container unloaded. That's similar to a state bill vetoed last year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the urging of business.

GARY TOEBBEN: We want to make sure that whatever fees are assessed to the carriers don't make us be noncompetitive with other ports around the country that are already expanding their capacity.

SAUL GONZALEZ: The ports' officials hope costs will be covered by a combination of government funds, tariffs, bonds and fees. The ports might also not renew valuable leases if shipping companies and terminal operators don't meet pollution control standards.