Clean Trucks Program at Port of LA can go forward, court rules [UPDATED]

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A truck passes shipping containers at China Shipping at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the busiest port complex in the US, on September near Long Beach, California.

A federal district court has upheld key provisions of a program designed to clean up air pollution at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, in part by requiring trucking companies to employ their drivers rather than contract with them.

[7:52 A.M.: The American Trucking Association has told an industry news source it intends to appeal the ruling, which it says is "clearly erroneous as a matter of law."]

In a written statement, Geraldine Knatz, the executive director of the Port of LA, said port officials are pleased.

“Our ability to have direct enforcement of the truck bans and other important features of our concession agreements with the trucking companies that call at the Port of Los Angeles thousands of times a day will help provide a safer and secure trucking system for the long term," Knatz wrote.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is also declaring victory for what's been called the "blue-green coalition" - an alliance of environmental and labor interests.

The trucking industry and other opponents of the employee-driver requirement have raised concerns that mandating drivers' status as employees will speed organizing efforts by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Officials at the Port of Los Angeles have maintained that the rule would promote safety on local roads and shift the burden of purchasing newer, cleaner trucks onto the companies that operate them, speeding transitions to cleaner equipment.

"This decision is evidence that we are making real progress on growing and greening our Port. Now we can finally move forward with our Clean Truck Program, a model for ports around the nation," Villaraigosa said in a written release.

The American Trucking Association challenged five provisions of the concession agreements the Port of Los Angeles required of trucking companies: the employee driver requirement, parking restrictions, maintenance requirements, a rule that trucks must display placards so that if they're polluting the public can call a number to report them, and a demonstration of financial responsibility.

Judge Cristina A. Snyder's opinion finds that the port can make these rules as part of concession agreements because it's acting as a market participant to further its interests, much as private businesses would do.

Requiring truckers to be employees of companies, rather than contractors, is a move "designed to transfer the financial burden of administration and record-keeping onto the trucking companies instead of the Port.

"This is clearly an economically motivated action, and one that a private company with substantial market power—such as the oligopoly power of the Port—would take when possible in pursuit of maximizing profit. The provision was also designed to help protect the Port’s investment in retrofitted trucks."

Snyder's ruling also finds environmental protection to be a justifiable aim for a business trying to grow. As evidence, Snyder quotes a declaration from David S. Freeman, formerly of the Port of Los Angeles.

"We quickly realized that in order to grow the Port, we had to abate the pollution because the people in San Pedro and Wilmington were not only angry and not only suffering from terrible air pollution, but they had learned that the law was there to protect them, and the NRDC and others had filed lawsuits, and they had stopped the Port from growing," Freeman said.

"So green growth which is what we called it was an absolute business necessity," Freeman said in testimony considered at trial. "[W]e responded with what we call our Clean Air Action P[lan], and it was a business necessity. I mean, we could not grow the business without attacking the pollution problem."

Managing air pollution, Snyder wrote, promotes the success of the port's business.

"The evidence demonstrates that Port-generated air pollution interfered with Port growth and has jeopardized the Port’s continued viability as a commercial enterprise," Snyder wrote. "The Concession Agreement helps the Port manage its property and facilities as any private landlord and facilities operator would."

The NRDC's Melissa Lin Perrella liked the ruling too. Perella said "it underscores one fight of many happening nationally to modernize the ports and reduce pollution. Millions of people live in port communities across the country and are forced to subsidize the operations of outdated port operations with their lungs."

The American Trucking Association has not yet been available for comment, but an appeal of Snyder's decision is likely.

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