Environment & Science

UPDATE: Supreme Court overturns part of Port of Los Angeles's anti-smog trucking plan (Full decision)

Trucks are driven near the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the busiest port complex in the US, on September near Long Beach, California.
Trucks are driven near the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the busiest port complex in the US, on September near Long Beach, California.
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The Supreme Court has overturned part of the anti-smog program at the Port of Los Angeles.

The port tried to restrict the types of trucks that can haul goods in and out of its terminals. But justices voted unanimously Thursday to strike down part of the port's Clean Trucks Program.

The port wanted companies to replace thousands of aging big rigs with newer, cleaner-burning models to reduce diesel emissions.

They emphasized this principle that the federal law preempts the City of Los Angeles through the port from making rules that affect interstate commerce.

It affects two provisions in the Clean Trucks program. One is a placard that the port was requiring trucks to have to report environmental safety concerns; the other is a plan for off-street parking. The Supreme Court decided both of those violate the principle that the federal law governs here.

But the court did not say whether the port could use other parts of the agreement with truckers to punish violations of other provisions it left intact.

It's the centerpiece of an effort to clean up air at the port, and it was a big part of outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's platform for what he did at the port: the Clean Air Action Plan. The idea is that there is so much truck traffic because of goods movement around the port, they required older, dirtier trucks to get phased down and they required companies to buy newer, cleaner trucks.

That program originally was run also by the Port of Long Beach, so the whole Harbor complex was involved. Long Beach dropped out and decided to make voluntary agreements and less restrictive, less enforceable ones, so the trucking industry remained angry at the Port of L.A. for what it was doing and said it was putting unnecessary rules on them. They appealed it over the last five years, and that's how we got here.

The program still lives — the air has already been cleaned 91 percent, so the clean air part of the Clean Trucks Program actually works. It's all of these other enforcement things that they were enforcing through concession agreements.

Basically, if you're a trucking company, you have to sign an agreement to go serve the port, and you had to comply with all these conditions. At least a couple of these conditions were found to be unreasonable under federal law. The overall structure of the program still is there — this looks like this will have a pretty narrow effect.

There are larger implications — other ports, including New York and New Jersey, and other port communities where people live near the port, breathe the dirty air and don't like it, were looking at ways to enforce similar agreements on trucking companies at their ports. This may be shaky ground to make that kind of an agreement work in some other place, even though it worked in Los Angeles.

There is also another effort at the federal level among senators from California and New Jersey to modify federal law to make it clear that these ports could make rules that would clean up the air.

Nobody else has these kinds of agreements, meaning Los Angeles has been leading the way. There's also a provision in these agreements that these trucking companies still have with the port that require maintenance.

There's nothing the Supreme Court said that would stop them from enforcing these maintenance rules on the trucking companies. If these trucks are dirty, broken and messed up, they could still stop them from serving the port under these agreements — the Supreme Court didn't touch that.

The City of Los Angeles has said they're concerned about it — it doesn't really overturn the program, but it definitely has been narrowed and narrowed as it has gotten legally challenged. This is a unanimous opinion, so in the Supreme Court's view there was no question that this is interfering with federal law.

They're going to have to figure out another way to enforce these kinds of programs. Otherwise, it's just voluntary.

This story has been updated.