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Activists, Union Fight For Cleaner Trucks In Newark
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Activists, Union Fight For Cleaner Trucks In Newark

Environment

Activists, Union Fight For Cleaner Trucks In Newark

Activists, Union Fight For Cleaner Trucks In Newark
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Environmentalists and the Teamsters Union are fighting for newer, cleaner trucks at the Port of Newark, but most of the trucks are owned by independent drivers who can't afford to buy new ones.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The nation's largest ports have become toxic hotspots in violation of federal clean air standards. The pollution comes from the combination of ships and thousands of idling diesel trucks at ports such as Newark, Los Angeles and Oakland. There's broad agreement that the solution is newer, cleaner trucks.

But as Nancy Solomon reports, there's one hitch: Who pays?

NANCY SOLOMON: Most of the televisions, computers and other gadgets that clutter American homes arrive at a port and are picked up by some of the oldest trucks on the road.

(Soundbite of port)

SOLOMON: At the Port of Newark, which serves the greater New York area, tractor trailers line up for hours and the air is thick with exhaust fumes and soot. As the drivers wait to pick up a load, I ask them the age of their trucks.

Unidentified Woman: I have '97.

Unidentified Man: She's nine years old.

Mr. EDWEDGE TIAFAL(ph): (unintelligible) 2000.

SOLOMON: Can you afford a new one with the new Clean Trucks Program?

Mr. TIFALL: No, I'm hardly making pay with this one here. No way.

SOLOMON: That's Edwedge Tiafal and like most of the truck drivers at ports, he's called an independent owner operator. Since deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980, most port trucking companies no longer hire drivers, but contract with independents who pay for all the expenses to run their trucks.

Mr. FRED POTTER (Ports Division Director, Teamsters Union): You know, this is a place where old trucks go to die.

SOLOMON: Fred Potter, director of the Ports Division for the Teamsters Union, says a new truck cost about $100,000. Even with the help of grants and low-cost financing offered by ports, Potter says that's out of reach for these drivers who make on average $28,000 a year.

Mr. POTTER: What these owner operatives can afford are trucks 10, 15, 20, even $25,000. That's older, it's more polluting than new technology. And then they try to keep these trucks together and working for as long as they're making these payments.

SOLOMON: The teamsters are part of a growing Green Blue Alliance, working with environmentalists to require port trucking companies to hire drivers and buy new fleets - what's called a Clean Trucks Program. Potter says it's part of a growing willingness among unions to see the future of stable good paying jobs, as inextricably linked to a green economy.

Curtis Whalen of the American Trucking Association, the trade group representing the companies, scoffs at this idea.

Mr. CURTIS WHALEN (American Trucking Association): They wrapped it into a clean air concept but, in fact, this was a business model attack to allow them to then all of a sudden find a whole new target for unionization being the port driver.

SOLOMON: Whalen says most drivers want to be independent and that the bulk of trucking companies are small and can't afford new fleets either. The Trucking Association has sued the Los Angeles Port, arguing that federal interstate commerce rules supersede local restrictions. They want an injunction that allows companies to continue using contract labor until the matter is resolved in court. This frustrates folks in the neighborhood closest to the Port of Newark.

Ms. ANA BAPTISTA (Ironbound Community Corporation): We're standing at what's called the Foot of Hawkins Street, where our local elementary school, Hawkins Street School, is located.

SOLOMON: Ana Baptista of Ironbound Community Corporation has counted as many as 100 trucks go down this street in an hour. She believes the truck traffic is why one in four kids in Newark has asthma, compared to one in 12 in nearby suburbs.

The suitably named Ironbound is a working-class immigrant community sandwiched between a huge international airport, the country's busiest rail line and its third largest port.

Ms. BAPTISTA: You know, when you ask people in Newark what their biggest issue is, a lot of them will tell you jobs. You know, the environment is really important, my kids' health is really important, but I need a job.

SOLOMON: Mayors Cory Booker of Newark, Michael Bloomberg of New York and Antonio Villaraigosa of L.A. favor the duel goals of greening the ports and providing better paying jobs for locals. If the Trucking Association wins its lawsuit, the Green Blue Alliance and its influential mayors say they'll fight to change the federal rules so that each port can set its own standards on just how companies haul goods out of the shipping terminals.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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