California Plans on Cutting Soot Emissions from Ports

The California Air Resources Board announces its plan to reduce air pollution at the state's ports. Nationwide, ports account for a large and growing proportion of a dangerous kind of air pollution: soot from diesel engines. California is leading the way in trying to reduce the problem.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The explosion of international trade, especially from China, has turned ports into huge and growing sources of air pollution. Last night, California's Air Resources Board approved a plan to control that pollution in this state. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren got a close look at the problem at the Port of Los Angeles.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Each day, about 50 massive ships dock here, and at the Port of Long Beach right next door. Thousands of containers are lifted from the ships and put on trucks and trains. Big diesel engines power most of this activity and spew enormous amounts of harmful soot into the air. Residents who live near the port say their health is being sacrificed to keep inexpensive goods flowing into the country.

(Soundbite of baby)

SHOGREN: Maria Malahi(ph) says nine people in her family are sick, including her two-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed at nine months with asthma.

Ms. MARIA MALAHI (Resident, Port of Long Beach): Now, she has to have breathing treatments. She's wheezing a lot. When she gets sick, it's very, very difficult for her because it makes it even harder for her to breathe.

SHOGREN: The state estimates that last year alone, tens of thousands of people developed asthma and other respiratory illnesses from the pollution, and 2,400 people died prematurely from heart attacks and lung problems caused by it.

Malahi was one of a parade of people who testified at an all-day public meeting of the California Air Resources Board, yesterday, in Long Beach. The board's president Robert Sawyer says the problem is urgent. Port traffic is growing; it may even triple in the next 10 years.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Dr. ROBERT SAWYER (Chairman, California Air Resources Board): With this would come big increases in emissions of air pollutants, which we simply cannot allow to happen.

SHOGREN: The board was considering an ambitious plan to cut health risks from diesel soot by 85 percent by 2020, from ports and the trucks and trains that carry products through the state. Under the plan, trucks would have to install modern pollution-control equipment. Big container ships would have to use cleaner fuel. And that's just the beginning. The plan read like a wish list of the changes they want to see.

Dr. SAWYER: Over the next year or two, we will put all the regulations in place that we can.

SHOGREN: It was early evening before the board took a vote.

(Soundbite of board meeting)

Dr. SAWYER: On all those in favor, please say aye.

(Soundbite of aye response)

Dr. SAWYER: Aye. Any opposed?

SHOGREN: It was unanimous...

Dr. SAWYER: I thank you all very much...

SHOGREN: ...but there was some dissent. Industry officials like T.L. Garrett of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, say that the state may be overreaching.

Mr. T.L. GARRETT (Vice President, Pacific Merchants Shipping Association): If you create the disincentive, or if you make things onerous enough here in California, there is the very real possibility of cargo being diverted to other ports.

SHOGREN: Public health advocates hope that other ports will follow California's lead and crack down on port pollution everywhere.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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