RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Here in Southern California, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the busiest in the nation. They also have some of the dirtiest air. Thousands of cargo trucks pass through each day. But Krissy Clark from member station KQED reports that this month marks a new era of cleaner air.
KRISSY CLARK, BYLINE: A common trope in environmental stories is to put things in terms of jobs versus the environment. But that's not what happened in this case. Pretty much everyone I spoke to wanted to make that very clear, including a trucker named Pedro Melendez.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE)
CLARK: He's starting the engine of his shiny new big rig, which he drives for a living. Score one for jobs. He uses it to haul containers of stuff made in China from the ports, out to warehouses, where they're sent to stores and sold to us. As his truck warms up, Melendez points to the exhaust pipe. Instead of black diesel smoke, there's nothing.
PEDRO MELENDEZ: Nothing, nothing, nothing. It's 100 percent clean energy.
CLARK: Score one for the environment. The truck runs on liquid natural gas. Melendez bought it with help from a grant, thanks to the Clean Truck Program, sponsored by the ports of L.A. and Long Beach.
Over the last few years, the ports have offered incentives to purchase new, clean trucks, while phasing out older, dirty ones. And since the first of this year, trucks that don't meet 2007 EPA emission standards are altogether banned.
MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: The trucks here at the port now meet the strictest clean air and safety standards of any major port in the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
CLARK: L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was key in developing the program, and recently threw a little celebration for it at the Port of L.A.
VILLARAIGOSA: We figured out a way to do both, to clean our environment, to grow good jobs.
CLARK: The Clean Trucks Program has replaced more than 10,000 old trucks, and emissions at the ports have dropped nearly in half.
David Pettit of the Natural Resources Defense Council says without so much diesel soot and ash clogging the air, communities will be healthier.
DAVID PETTIT: The challenge here was to clean up what's often called the diesel death zone - a bulls-eye of increase in cancer risk right here at the ports, and then it kind of creeps out along the truck routes. And it was a serious public health problem.
CLARK: And a personal health problem for Kimberly Melendez, the 15-year-old daughter of trucker Pedro Melendez. They live just a couple miles from the ports, and the diesel exhaust aggravated her childhood asthma. But since the clean truck program got underway...
KIMBERLY MELENDEZ: The air is way more cleaner than how it used to be. The smog isn't as dark.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
SHANNON BELL: I wanted clean air. I wanted clean air for myself. I wanted clean air for my family.
CLARK: Shannon Bell is another truck driver. I met him at a taco stand right outside the port. He lives nearby, his son has asthma, and he's happy about the cleaner air, too.
BELL: At the same time, you know, I didn't suspect that the truckers would end up paying the costs.
CLARK: Because, Bell says, all those new, cleaner trucks?
BELL: They cost anywhere from $100 to $180,000, you know.
CLARK: And how much did your last truck cost?
BELL: Seventeen thousand.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BELL: Seventeen thousand dollars.
CLARK: Like a lot of truck drivers, Bell had paid off his old truck years ago. To replace it with a new one, he took out a big loan and took on payments of $1,300 a month. And then there's the maintenance of these high-tech trucks. It costs a lot more.
Because the trucking company Bell worked for considered him an independent truck driver, he's had to cover all this.
BELL: I mean, I've been working my butt off all this time, and I have basically nothing to show for it.
CLARK: After a complicated legal battle, a plan that would have shifted the costs of the new rigs from individual truckers to trucking companies failed in court. And while Bell isn't ready to blame his money troubles on the move to clean up port air, he says the effort has come at a cost. The question is: Who should shoulder it?
For NPR News, I'm Krissy Clark in Los Angeles.
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