Getting Rid of Diesel Trucks at the Ports Critical to Cleaning Air in Southern California

Photo by Rhys Moult on Unsplash

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would like you to believe that for the price of a few lattes per container, one of the largest sources of air pollution in Southern California can be cleaned up.

Who do they think they’re fooling?

Heavy-duty diesel big-rig trucks are the largest source of the diesel air pollution in our region. Diesel exhaust is toxic, of course, and includes more than 40 substances listed as hazardous air pollutants by the U.S. Environment Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board. Exposure to this exhaust can lead to asthma, heart disease, lung disease, cancer and even premature death.

And the people disproportionately impacted by this dirty air are the families who live near ports, rail yards, warehouses and freeways.

Three years ago, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and their Harbor Commissions approved an update to the Clean Air Action Plan — a plan that calls for a dramatic reduction in air pollution emissions from cargo movement in and around the ports. The plan also includes establishing a Clean Truck Rate; a fee intended to get drivers out of diesel trucks and raise funds to help pay for cleaner trucks.

The idea is that if the ports charge a fee on every container going into and out of the ports, it will motivate companies and truckers to use clean-fueled trucks that will be exempt from paying the fee.

Yet, the fee being proposed and soon voted on by the ports is just $10 per loaded twenty-foot container. Ten bucks will do a great job of keeping dirty diesel trucks on our roads, polluting our air, and exacerbating our children’s asthma. It will do little to phase them out.

Officials with the ports claim any fee more than $10 will create such economic hardship on the freight industry that cargo will ultimately be diverted. Their fear is that tennis shoes shipped to Chicago will go through New York instead of the San Pedro Bay ports. But the facts don’t support that assertion. The ports’ own study found that if the rate were $70 per container, significant growth would still happen but that growth would be reduced ever so slightly by just 1.4 percent. The ports’ container volume would still be expected to increase by 56 percent from 2021 through 2035.

And while the ports studied the possible economic impacts on their industry, they failed to consider the cost to human health.

Asthma rates in Los Angeles have increased dramatically in the last three decades. Asthma is the most prevalent chronic disease among children, affecting nine percent of children ages 0 to 17, and is the leading cause of children’s visits to hospital emergency rooms. Children living near ports and freeways are exposed to high levels of diesel exhaust and that makes them five times more likely to have underdeveloped lungs.

In a recent interview with Spectrum News, Mayor Garcetti said how proud he is to transition the Port of L.A. to zero emission technology and questioned what else could be done to ensure Angelenos are not developing asthma and lung cancer.

Mr. Mayor — this is not some great mystery. A $50 per truck Clean Truck Rate is low hanging fruit in terms of what can be done today to get thousands of polluting trucks off our roads and replaced with cleaner technology. You and Mayor Garcia promised clean trucks starting this year in your Clean Air Action Plan. Instead the $10 rate, if adopted, will perpetuate the ports’ reliance upon dirty diesel trucks.

Why must Southern California families pay the price for robust trade with their health?

Do the right thing and put our communities first. We deserve clean air, and that means transitioning to clean trucks starting today, not many years from now. A $50 fee is a very small price to pay to ship a container stuffed with thousands of pairs of tennis shoes to Chicago, but it will yield big dividends in healthier children here at home.


Marc Carrel is President and CEO of BREATHE California of Los Angeles County and President and CEO of the Emphysema Foundation of America.

Joseph K. Lyou, Ph.D., is President and CEO of the Coalition for Clean Air and also serves on the California Transportation Commission.

Join BREATHE LA in calling for an end to diesel fuel now in California.

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