Environment & Science

Regulators look to tougher pollution rules for LA's ports

The Port of Los Angeles.
The Port of Los Angeles.
Port of Los Angeles

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Southern California has made progress over the years in its fight against air pollution, but the region still has some of the worst air in the country. And regulators say the area is now losing ground in the effort to meet tougher federal standards.

That’s why the South Coast Air Quality Management District will hold an all-day meeting in Diamond Bar Friday to consider new rules for two of the area’s biggest polluters: the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. 

But the ports are saying, not so fast. 

Southern California’s ports attract legions of oceangoing ships, trains that move containers, and diesel-burning trucks. They all cross international or state lines.  In most cases local regulators don’t have direct jurisdiction over these polluters, says Adrian Martinez, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"However, the [federal] Clean Air Act provides authority for local governments to basically put kind of a bubble on the port and say you need to make sure that you’re reducing the pollution for everything that comes in," says Martinez.

 Now regional regulators may decide to do exactly that. Such a move would mean the ports could be held liable for failing to meet their goals for cutting sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and soot pollution.

The ports say they can clean up their air on their own. As proof, they point to more than a dozen measures enacted under their six-year old Clean Air Action Plan. One success is a program to get ships to slow down, says Bob Kanter, director of environmental policy for the port of Long Beach.

"The ports offered cash incentives to slow down, burn less fuel, put out less air pollution," says Kanter. "We had over 94% participation voluntarily in this program, which is huge."

An even bigger part of the plan is the Clean Trucks Program, that has stopped the oldest, dirtiest diesel rigs from serving the ports. Kanter argues that these and other pollution cutting measures worked because they were voluntary. New regulation, he says, would change how companies view calling at southern California ports. 

"I’m telling you, it sends a chill," he argues. "When they’re already looking at the two most heavily regulated ports, throwing another layer of regulation is really a bad message to business. And what we’ve already seen is with new opportunities these companies are going elsewhere."

But Adrian Martinez of the NRDC points out that since approving the Clean Air Action Plan, the ports have also approved billions of dollars in expansion.

"There’s a lot of construction happening. They’re expanding their operations, which means that you’re going to have more containers and ultimately could mean more pollution," says Martinez.

The ports are trying to negotiate a last-minute deal to avoid the new regulation. But that’s a tough sell. In recent years, the South Coast Air Quality Management District has regulated even the smallest polluters in the region to try to meet increasingly-strict federal rules. That includes charbroilers at restaurants, portable generators, and fireplaces, notes Elaine Chang,  a senior official with the SCAQMD. 

"There’s a fairness issue, right?" she says. "Everybody has to do [his] fair share."