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America's busy seaports may be critical to our economy, but they are also huge and growing sources of air pollution - and they've largely escaped regulation, so far.

Now that's changing. In Southern California, local residents are forcing the nation's biggest port to face the problem - as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

John Miller lives in the house of his dreams; it's perched just above the Pacific Ocean at the bottom of a steep cliff. To get there you climb down 160 steps. From his deck he has amazing views of the surf and Catalina Island, but also a front row seat on global commerce.

Mr. JOHN MILLER (resident, San Pedro, California): There's a large container ship. There's a large container ship. That's a tanker.

SHOGREN: The ships are visible only fleetingly, then they disappear into a brown cloud that stretches across the horizon.

It's a deadly cloud and it's effects stretch for many miles.

Mr. MILLER: We're living in the headwaters of a diesel death zone, here. It extends from this little town of San Pedro and Long Beach, all the way in through the south coast air basin.

SHOGREN: The pollution comes from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. That's where ships, trains, and trucks converge, along with their exhaust.

Those ports are Southern California's biggest single source of air pollution. Studies show that tens of thousands of people living here face cancer risks, 100 times greater than what California allows near factories. They also suffer higher rates of asthma, birth defects, and lung failure.

Miller's an emergency room doctor. As he treats patients, he's sure that at least some of them, are sick from pollution.

Mr. MILLER: We see people who have never smoked, never worked with asbestos, never been exposed to radon - who come down with lung cancer. And unfortunately, women seem particularly susceptible to this.

SHOGREN: Just a few miles away, the bustling ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach merge into one massive industrial complex. Forty percent of all the containers that reach the United States travel through here. David Freeman is the president of the harbor commission for the Port of Los Angeles. He takes us on a tour by boat.

Mr. DAVID FREEMAN (president, harbor commission, Port of Los Angeles):

It's almost impossible to appreciate the enormity of this operation without actually seeing it. It's almost like going out in the Serengeti, when you go out there and see it for yourself, you get the enormity of it.

SHOGREN: Right here, in one spot, we see a tall ship bending over in the wind; there's a tug boat and a big container ship; and then in the distance we see all the huge cranes that are used to take these containers off the ships.

Mr. FREEMAN: It's like a Jolly Green Giant that's just picking up 20 ton boxes like they were matchsticks, and carrying them across the ship to shore, and gently dropping them.

SHOGREN: Cargo traffic here has nearly tripled in the last ten years. California politicians want to keep it growing, but if Freeman has his way, air pollution won't be growing with it. In fact, it will be chopped drastically.

Mr. FREEMAN: The traffic through this port, ten years from now, will probably be 50, 60, 70 percent greater, and the total pollution, at least 80 percent lower.

SHOGREN: He says it's possible to make such dramatic cuts because operations are so dirty now.

Local air quality officials say the ports pump out more pollution than all six million cars in the region.

Freeman's 80-years-old, he's one of the grandfathers of the clean air business. He helped to create the Environmental Protection Agency 35 years ago. He says he knows it's possible to slash pollution from a huge, powerful industry. He's done it before.

Mr. FREEMAN: When Jimmy Carter named me the head of the Tennessee Valley Authority in '77, the TVA was the largest sulfur polluter in the country. The EPA was suing us. The state of Alabama was suing us. It was that bad. We worked out a settlement. In three years time, we cut the sulfur pollution in half.

SHOGREN: Since Freeman arrived at the port last fall, he's been telling industries to consider radical changes. Things like trucks using electricity or natural gas, instead of diesel, and a whole new transportation system for cargo.

Mr. FREEMAN: Something that will take these containers, nonstop, by green electricity, all to the way to the Wal-Mart distribution center, to the Target distribution center, and keep them off the highways and off of petroleum.

SHOGREN: Freeman also plans to slash emissions from ships. Right now, ships use something called bunker fuel, which is 50 to 100 times dirtier than the fuel used by diesel trucks. He says ships could plug into electric power from shore, or they could use cleaner fuel and pollution control equipment. But they will do something.

Mr. FREEMAN: We're the landlord of this huge operation. They're all tenants. They all want a few more acres. They all want a concession here. They want this, they want that. Let me tell you folks, they're not going to get it unless they clean up.

SHOGREN: Freeman's not the only one pushing for cleaner ports. The state of California is on the verge of requiring ships to use lower sulfur fuel in their smaller engines when they're near port, and starting in July, it will require trucks and dock equipment to use ultra-low sulfur diesel.

(Soundbite of port activity)

SHOGREN: On board one big container ship, the MOL Efficiency, Captain Hidotoshi Ito(ph) says he's already tried lower sulfur fuel in his engines, and it works.

Captain HIDOTOSHI ITO (Ship Captain): Yeah, we can use. No problem.

SHOGREN: And you don't think your company would have any problem with that?

Captain ITO: Problem is I guess the cost.

SHOGREN: But if that's the price of entry into the Port of Los Angeles, his company, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, is ready to pay it. Because this is where they do the most business.

Mitsui O.S.K., based in Tokyo, is one of the world's largest steamship lines. Frank Piasano runs the company's U.S. terminals. He says, sure he'd be wiling to replace the 80 big diesel trucks the company now uses to haul containers around the terminal, but he needs to be sure that some cleaner truck will do the job.

Mr. FRANK PIASANO (Mitsui O.S.K., United States Operations): So it's not like we're sitting here saying no, no, no. No, it's costing us a lot of money. We're looking at it going, we'll do it. Can you guarantee me they work? Just show us one that'll work.

SHOGREN: Some representatives of this shipping industry say there should be consistent international rules for the ports. If the Port of Los Angeles sets its own rules and pushes too hard, ships will go elsewhere.

Freeman scoffs at that idea, especially since many of the goods that move through the port end up in California. He says the cost of the cleanup will be only a tiny fraction of the 150 billion worth of cargo that companies send through the port each year.

Mr. FREEMAN: They're not picking a fight with us. I mean, we're the landlord with the best boathouse in the world. They want to keep coming, and they're going to come clean.

SHOGREN: John Miller, the ER doctor with the house on the beach, likes what he hears from Freeman, but he and other community activists want action.

Mr. MILLER Well, I think it's admirable, and it's a change from six years ago. But so far it's been mostly just green talk, green spin, and green wash. They still don't have a plan.

SHOGREN: Miller says he and his fellow activists will keep the pressure on.

Dr. MILLER: It's absolutely clear to me, that if I could be a part of a group of citizens who diminish this pollution - even a fraction - that I would have saved far more lives than I would ever save working as an ER doctor trying to treat individual victims of this problem. We have to go after the source.

SHOGREN: Freeman agrees. He says the port will release its plan to do so next month.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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