Trucks spew deadly pollution at nation’s ports, new reports show

Two reports published earlier this month, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, underscore the importance of cleaning up the air around the nation’s ports, with emphasis on emissions from thousands of trucks that shuttle to and from the docks.

One is a study by the New York-New Jersey-based Coalition for Healthy Ports, titled “Hazardous to Our Health: The human impact of port truck pollution on truck drivers and residents in New York and New Jersey.”

“Exposure to diesel particulate matter causes hypertension, asthma, heart disease, lung cancer and a host of other respiratory illnesses, and can often be deadly,” the environment-labor-community group said. Citing studies showing daily emissions from the ports equaling that from over 400,000 cars, it said evidence increasingly points to port truck pollution in soaring illness rates among drivers and residents of nearby communities.

More than one of every four schoolchildren in Newark, N.J., suffers from asthma, and the death rate from asthma is twice the rate found in suburban and rural areas of the same county, the report said. Port communities also have cancer risks hundreds of times greater than the Environmental Protection Agency’s “acceptable cancer level” of one in a million. Port truckdrivers are especially hard hit, since most also live near the ports.

Since the trucking industry was deregulated in 1980, most port drivers are so-called independent contractors, shouldering all costs for their rigs, and barred from organizing to better their conditions. As a result, the coalition says, the average New York and New Jersey driver earns less than $10/hour and has no health insurance. Because drivers can only afford old, dirty trucks, the Port Authority estimates that nearly all trucks now serving the ports fail to meet 2007 EPA engine standards.

The mayors of New York, Newark, Oakland, Los Angeles and other cities recently joined together to urge Congress to help local authorities overcome the roadblocks, including outdated laws, holding back cleanup efforts.

On the opposite coast, Contra Costa Times reporters Sandy Kleffman and Suzanne Bohan launched a series of articles drawing on data specially compiled by the Alameda County Health Department, which serves communities across the bay from San Francisco.

“Examining asthma rates reveals a stunning pattern,” the reporters found. “By far, the most hospitalizations occur in low-income communities near the Port of Oakland, along busy Interstate 880 in East and West Oakland, and the convergence of freeways near North Oakland and Emeryville.” Significant truck traffic on those freeways is linked to the Port of Oakland, and trucks often pass through and park in nearby residential neighborhoods.

The reporters also cited a cancer risk three times higher in West Oakland neighborhoods near the port than in the Bay Area as a whole.

Oakland, too, has been developing a Clean Trucks Program as part of its overall Maritime Air Quality Improvement Plan. The Oakland Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports has been encouraging the port there to follow in the footsteps of the programs that have cut port truck air emissions by about 70 percent in the last 15 months at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

LA would also require trucking firms to have “concession” status with the port and to hire drivers as employees, making the firms responsible for their trucks. Those plans and a similar proposal for Oakland are now in limbo pending the outcome of the American Trucking Association’s lawsuit against the concession requirement.

Progress also brings contradictions. Earlier this year the Port of Oakland said, starting Jan. 1, pre-1994 trucks would be banned and filters would be required on those built between 1994 and 2003. In either case, costs in the tens of thousands are far beyond the reach of most independent drivers, and subsidies offered by the port have run out, leaving many drivers stranded.

One of these is Manuel Rivas, 56, a single father of three who has been a port driver for 21 years. His 1989 truck broke down months ago, and Rivas can’t afford a new truck, or even a newer used one which would quickly become obsolete.

“I’ve lost my job,” he told the People’s World in a phone interview. “My situation is terrible – I don’t know what will happen after Jan. 1. Because I’m an independent driver, I have no unemployment insurance, and at 56, I’m too old to find another job.”

Rivas, who describes damage to his own health from years of breathing fumes, continues to support efforts to cut diesel pollution at the port. But he says the drivers need more consideration.

Meanwhile, he continues to work with other drivers in the same plight, with support of the Oakland Clean and Safe Ports Coalition, which is working on ways to help drivers find new jobs or get retraining.

Photo: PW/Marilyn Bechtel



Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.