One of the goals of the Eat Local Challenge is to raise questions about what we eat. Who produced the food? What methods did they use? Where does it come from? How did it get here? And what sorts of envirionmental impacts are incurred along the way? Answering these last two questions requires a closer look at the international goods distribution system, something that is so diffuse outside of the major port regions that it usually fades into the background.
The international goods distribution system is a complex multi-modal network (roads, shipping lines, airports, railroads). Most goods arrive in the U.S. on huge ships loaded with containers that can be mounted directly onto rail cars or truck beds for transport to warehouses or repacking centers. The highest density of activity is around the major ports, and the impacts are concentrated on whoever lives and works nearby. A good way to visualize this is as an hourglass. Container ships bring goods from all over the world. They converge on a narrow region (the port), where the goods are transferred to trucks and trains. The trucks and trains travel away from the port on a tightly-packed network of freeways and railroad tracks, and then spread out across the nation.
Potent Air Pollutants from Ports
The most important air pollutants in port regions are diesel particulate matter (the visible black and white smoke coming out of tailpipes, as well as ultrafine particles that are far too small to see, but are significant health risks) and nitrogen oxides (a combination of the gases NO and NO2). Diesel particulate matter (PM) has been strongly linked to such respiratory problems as asthma and acute bronchitis, and is also a probable cause of lung cancer and heart disease. Nitrogen oxides are one of the ingredients of urban smog (ozone), which can cause respiratory and cardiac ailments in children, the elderly, and those with existing respiratory difficulties. The health effects of air pollution are summarized in a fact sheet from the California Air Resources Board (PDF); much more information can be found in the links at the bottom of this post.
Human Costs of Trade
In Los Angeles and Orange Counties along the California coast the area around the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are thick with air pollution because of port-related activities, as well as other vehicular traffic. Recently, the Los Angeles Times reported:
Hudson Elementary is tucked in the crook of California's busiest industrial arm. A few miles from the booming ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, its playground backs up to the truck-clogged Terminal Island Freeway, flaring refineries and double-stacked freight trains powered by belching locomotives. More than 40% of retail goods imported to the U.S. funnel past this poor but tidy neighborhood.
The freight transportation corridors "are not located in isolated industrial areas, but in fact pass through hundreds of cities, millions of residential homes," Jesse Marquez, executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment, said in a recent speech in Wilmington. "It is the local communities that deal with daily bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion … that have to breathe the diesel fuel exhaust from ships, trucks, trains and yard equipment every day. It is our children that are suffering from an asthma crisis…. It is our friends and family members who are dying." Studies back him up. Students less than a quarter of a mile from major freeways are 89% more likely to suffer from asthma. Children in Long Beach and other industrial cities are three times more likely to suffer decreased lung development. Workers at ports and freight yards and area residents experience higher cancer risks and heart disease. "Californians who live near ports, rail yards and along high traffic corridors are subsidizing the goods-movement sector with their health," said Andrea Hricko, associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, which has done several of the studies. Hricko noted that the air board's own study estimated 2,400 people die each year in some of California's poorest communities from causes tied to goods-movement air pollution. "That constitutes a public health crisis. Can you imagine if 2,400 deaths annually were attributed to avian flu? And if state officials said, 'We have a plan to reduce that to 800 deaths, in 15 years?' Every expert in the world would be working on it. These communities deserve the same treatment."
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the neighborhoods around the Port of Oakland carry the air pollution burden for goods movement. The West Oakland neighborhood is home to about 20,000 people. Its neighbors are the Port of Oakland (4th busiest port in the U.S.), three Interstate freeways, and multiple rail lines. Currently, over 10,000 truck trips per day are made in and around the Port; the number is expected to reach 22,000 by 2010. In addition, ship and train pollution sources are within or on the border of the neighborhood. Consequently, the residents of that neighborhood receive a significantly higher dose of diesel pollution than the average Californian. A scientific study by the non-profit Pacific Institute found that the average West Oaklander is exposed to five times more diesel pollution than the average Californian. The study also reports that children who live in West Oakland are seven times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than the average California child.
Pressures for Change, Improvements on the Way
Community groups, environmental advocates and others have been applying significant pressure on the ports for many years. Recently, even the major port labor union started working to reduce the impact:
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, a formidable labor group not historically associated with environmental causes, has launched a campaign to slash air pollution at West Coast ports. The goal is to substantially reduce air pollutants at ports worldwide. The first step is to lobby shipowners to reduce harmful emissions by installing new technologies.
Together, they are making progress. For example, CARB approved a plan to reduce emissions related to goods movement through a combination of new regulations, incentive programs to clean up in-use diesel engines, use of cleaner fuel in ships, and various other technical and political approaches. At the same time, the State of California is developing a Goods Movement Action Plan to increase the efficiency of goods movement while decreasing the pollution impacts.
Ship operators have started making some positive changes. Maersk's ships, for example, are switching to lower sulfur fuel close to land to reduce sulfur emissions. (The fuel used in container ships is truly horrible stuff: a thick molasses-like sludge that contains hundreds of times more sulfur than on-road diesel.) Another beneficial program is called "cold ironing," in which ships shut off their engines while docked, and plug in to the land-based electrical grid to run the ship's equipment while being loaded or unloaded. Yet another potentially positive change is the appointment of David Freeman--a legend in the energy business--as chairman of Los Angeles' harbor commission. The early news reports show a man who wants to see some real action.
The Future of the Ports
The ports along the West Coast are expected to undergo significant growth in the next 20 years. Truck traffic at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, for example, is expected to triple by 2025 (reference: Harboring Pollution). The expected relative change over time are shown clearly in Table II-3 of the CARB Ports Plan (PDF): PM emissions from trucks will decrease by 80% between 2005 and 2020, train emissions will stay roughly constant, but emissions from ships will more than double.
As time goes on, trucks used to haul goods will become significantly cleaner. Trucks built in 2007 and beyond will have essentially zero particulate emissions (The EPA Diesel page), and there are plans to clean up the trucks that were built before 2007 (a typical truck has a lifetime of over 20 years, with the oldest and dirtiest generally working around the ports). Ships, however, will become a more significant source of pollution. Most cargo ships are not registered in the United States and are therefore subject to weak international standards (which are probably infrequently enforced). The engines can last a very long time, sometimes for many decades, so the rate of replacement with cleaner engines is glacially slow. Train engines are also less stringently regulated than trucks, but progress is slowly being made in reducing their emissions. These reductions (or other innovations, such as hybrid switching locomotives) will be important for people living near "inland ports"--large switching yards where train cars are rearranged before heading to further destinations. The Roseville Railyard, northeast of Sacramento, is the largest train switching yard west of the Mississippi, creating high pollution concentrations in California's Sacramento valley and foothills (ARB's study).
Efforts to reduce the pollutant emissions related to goods movement have gained significant momentum in recent years. The groups fighting the pollution face many challenges, including a projected doubling or tripling of goods throughput in the next decade, lack of regulatory authority over ships, threats to take business elsewhere, and shipping companies determined to put low costs above all else. It will be interesting to see what unfolds over the next few years.
The subject of air pollution and transportation is highly complex and interdisciplinary, and I have just scratched the surface here. For more information, consult the references below.
Marc lives in Berkeley, California and writes Mental Masala, a freshly-ground blend of food, history, travel, history, and nature. During the day, he works as an engineer at a company which designs and builds emission control devices for in-use diesel engines.
Thanks to Jennifer Finton, Policy Manager at Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails, for reviewing a draft of this post and making valuable additions.
Credit for upper ship photo: hermmermferm's Flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.
Credit for lower ship photo: Kevin's Flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.
Further Reading or Listening
- Harboring Pollution, from the Coalition for Clean Air and the NRDC. This report has "Environmental Report Cards" for 10 U.S. ports
- Strategies to Clean Up U.S. Ports, from the Coalition for Clean Air and the NRDC. This report contains descriptions of ways to reduce the environmental impact of ports
- A history of container shipping from the SF Chronicle
- Emission Reduction Plan for Ports and Goods Movement from the California Air Resources Board (CARB)
- CARB's Diesel Risk Reduction Program
- California's Goods Movement Action Plan
- Health Risk Assessment for Diesel Exhaust (PDF) from CARB
- CARB's Children's Health Study
- Multiple Air Toxics Exposure Study from the South Coast Air Quality Management District
- LA Weekly's special report: Clear and Present Danger from September 2005
- The Portwatch Blog
- Downloadable MP3 audio reports from Living On Earth: The Haze over Trade, Harbor Pollution, Greening California's Ports, Idle Reduction Programs