Environment & Science

Truckers blast new clean air plan at ports of LA and Long Beach

Trucks wait to be loaded at the Port of Los Angeles Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 in Los Angeles.
Trucks wait to be loaded at the Port of Los Angeles Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 in Los Angeles.
Nick Ut/AP

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

Labor activists are blasting new plan to clean up the air at the Ports of LA and Long Beach that they argue will come at the expense of truck drivers.

Released yesterday, the Clean Air Action Plan is a $14 billion road map of how to cut greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution at the ports, the largest polluters in the region, and gradually shift away from internal combustion engines entirely.

To do so, the ports intend to eventually replace the 16,800 container-hauling trucks that service the ports, 96 percent of which are powered by diesel, with zero-emission technology.

“It’s going to be extremely expensive, and the technology is not there,” Gene Seroka, the executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, told the Board of Harbor Commissioners on Thursday as he explained how the ports would incentivize manufacturers to build equipment they do not currently make.

The huge price tag worries labor unions like the Teamsters, who say much of the nearly $2 billion spent on the first Clean Air Action Plan, passed in 2006, was borne by truck drivers. That plan resulted in the turn over of the entire fleet of port trucks, replacing old, dirty clunkers with cleaner, but far more expensive, versions. Many drivers could not afford to buy new trucks, which cost upwards of $100,000.

The ports anticipated this, and so inserted a provision in the plan that would require companies to convert drivers, many of whom were independent owner-operators, into employees, and buy their equipment for them. But the American Trucking Association sued the Port of Los Angeles, and in 2011 the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the trucking industry. The Clean Air Action Plan was allowed to proceed, but without the employee mandate.

So instead of employing their drivers, many trucking companies continued to treat them as independent contractors. They purchased trucks on their behalf and then leased them back to the drivers, deducting lease payments from their paychecks. Many drivers have gone on strike, or sued, claiming the arrangements violate labor laws and that they are misclassified as contractors when they should be employees.

Fred Potter, Director of the Teamsters Port Division, called the new Clean Air Action Plan “a disaster for drivers,” because it did not spell out who would shoulder the costs of upgrading from diesel to low or zero emission trucks, which are more than three times as expensive. 

“So, we see a program that where we the cost is going to put on the very people that can’t afford it,” he told KPCC's AirTalk.

The ports say shifting to zero emission technology will require significant state, regional and federal government funding to help build out electrical infrastructure, do demonstration projects of early stage technology, and incentivize the early adoption of clean vehicles.

They also say the 2011 court ruling ties their hands when it comes to getting involved in disputes between drivers and trucking companies.

“We tried to address the issues that Mr. Potter has outlined and the courts rejected our efforts,” Phillip Sanfield, spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles, wrote in an email. “So it’s clear that the ports have limits in what we can regulate.”

Sanfield said the new air plan will make life easier for truckers by streamlining the movement of cargo around the ports, reducing the amount of time drivers spend picking up containers.

But Jessica Durrum, the director of the Clean and Safe Ports Program for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), said the latest Clean Air Action Plan could have done more to fix labor problems. She would like to see the ports ban trucking companies that are not in compliance with state or federal labor laws – something she says the ports have thus far been reluctant to do.

The Port of LA's Sanfield declined to comment, writing, "this is a complex legal issue involving local, state and federal laws."