DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Two ports, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, handle almost half of all of the consumer goods being shipped into the United States. Together, these two ports are also the single largest polluter in Southern California, a region famous for its smog.
NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on a new California law that will soon require some of the largest diesel-guzzling ships to kill their engines and plug in to shore power at the docks.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Shipping is a dirty business and it's hard to regulate. Ships register in distant countries, they burn dirty bunker fuel thousands of miles off the coasts. And when they get into port, these massive vessels that are four football fields long, can't just shut down when they unload their cargo for three days. See, aboard its more floating city than ship, with plumbing systems, lights, computers, climate-controlled containers.
RENE MOILANEN: And typically they're running their auxiliary engines that entire time. It's essentially like leaving a car idling in front of your driveway.
SIEGLER: On a drizzly morning, Port of Long Beach environmental planner Renee Moilanen stands on the slippery deck of a small patrol boat; a humbling place beneath the 20-story high red cranes unloading cargo. She says requiring the vessel above us to shut off its diesel and plug into electricity is the emissions equivalent of taking 33,000 cars off the road for each day they do it.
MOILANEN: So if we can reduce those emissions occurring at berth, we can make significant progress in reducing health risks for the local community.
SIEGLER: Ship emissions are just one component though of a huge spectrum of environmental problems at the ports. And until recently, they've taken a backseat to bitter fights over pollution from all the trucks and trains that move the cargo out of here. But shore power is one big piece of a broader air quality plan; some of it, the ports have done voluntarily, some by court order, but all in response to the alarmingly high rates of asthma and cancer detected among people in the mostly poor, minority neighborhoods down wind of the two ports.
MAYOR BOB FOSTER: Years ago, when we were putting this plan in place, you know, I was quoted many times as saying, you know, we're not going to have, you know, kids get asthma or cancer in our city, so that someone in Kansas can get a cheaper television set.
SIEGLER: Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster. His city owns some of the port, a huge economic engine for this region. But he straddles a fine line between port booster and public health advocate.
FOSTER: The ships are just sort of the last remaining big ticket item on pollution. I think this will - well, I know, this will be a much healthier environment. And we'll still have a robust economy of really good jobs. I think this is the template for the rest of the world.
SIEGLER: But for now, California is the only government in the world to mandate shore power. And there are concerns the less-regulated East Coast ports could poach business once the Panama Canal is widened to accommodate larger vessels. Some shipping lines have grumbled about having to spend on average $1.5 million to retrofit their vessels, just to do business in one state.
It's just the two cables that we're looking at?
MOILANEN: Yeah. Yeah.
SIEGLER: Don't over-think it.
SIEGLER: Back on the patrol boat, the port's Renee Moilanen points out, what look like two giant extension cords. They plunge over the side of a vessel owned by the Matson Line. It was one of the first here to plug into shore power ahead of the mandate. The cables disappear under the wharf, which the port recently electrified.
MOILANEN: It looks far less impressive than it actually is. The technology and the engineering behind it is very complicated.
SIEGLER: And expensive, and just one step in the massive effort to clean up one of the largest sources of pollution in a region with some of the worst air in the country.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
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