Big Trucking Deal

A diverse coalition wins a battle to regulate air pollution at California ports

Kate Sheppard

The Coalition for Safe and Clean Ports says the trucking industry is exploiting immigrant drivers for the benefit of corporations.

Sandwiched between three freeways and the fourth-largest container port in the country lies the neighborhood of West Oakland, Calif. Its residents often choke down the exhaust of the 1,500 diesel trucks that pass through the community on the way to and from the Port of Oakland. On any given day, trucks are parked throughout this working-class, African-American neighborhood, sometimes idling for hours as drivers await their next load.

Margaret Gordon, 61, knows these trucks well – and the toll they’ve taken on her neighborhood. She has asthma. Her son has asthma. So do her grandchildren and, according the Alameda County Public Health Department, at least one in five kids in the community. 

Asthma is not all that afflicts the neighborhood. According to a March report by the California Air Resources Board, there are 1,200 excess cancers per 1 million people in West Oakland. And the average lifespan of residents is six years less than that of their more upscale neighbors in Oakland Hills, only 10 miles away. 

Every year for the last 15 years I have lived in West Oakland, I know somebody [who] has died of some form of cancer,” says Gordon, a founding member of the Environmental Indicators Project, a nonprofit organization that studies the local effect of diesel pollution, and a member of the Oakland Port Commission. 

For years, dirty air has pitted residents against truck drivers, many of whom are immigrants working long hours for low wages. A similar story plays out at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

But over the past year, groups as diverse as the Teamsters, the National Resources Defense Council and the American Lung Association have joined community members and truck drivers to form the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports to take on the broader culprit: an unsustainable trucking system.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Motor Carrier Act, which deregulated the industry, turning truckers into independent contractors. Most drivers now own their trucks and are contracted by trucking companies that, in turn, contract with businesses that ship through a port. Drivers are responsible for maintenance, route planning and parking – an expensive system for people whose average annual salary is $30,000.

Many can afford only older, polluting diesel rigs, and must park wherever they find free space. The trucking companies and the industries for which they transport goods, meanwhile, absorb almost none of these costs. 

This trucking system is totally broken,” says Doug Bloch, an organizer with Change to Win and Oakland director of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports. And it’s exploiting the community and it’s exploiting the immigrant truck drivers, all for the benefit of Wal-Mart and Target and these huge companies that are moving goods through our port.” 

In 2000, California set a goal of cutting overall diesel pollution in the state by 85 percent by 2020. And in December 2007, the state followed with a regulation limiting diesel emissions from port trucks. With port traffic expected to double by 2020, these state decisions marked two big victories for community and environmental groups. 

In September, the port will begin phasing in new standards that require drivers to purchase clean-burning diesel or natural gas trucks, or to retrofit older trucks. By the end of 2009, all trucks will be required to meet these standards, but under the current system, few truckers can afford to do so. 

I’m in agreement that we should clean up the environment,” says trucker José Manuel Lino Rivas, who lives in Oakland. But we also need the authorities to help us obtain a truck, because with the salaries we’re paid, we can’t.”

A new truck costs upward of $125,000. The ports are applying for state grants to help cover some of the costs of transitioning to the new rules. But under the most optimistic projections, grants would provide only $20,000 to $50,000 per truck, and maintaining new truck models can cost significantly more.

Rivas was one of 1,250 Oakland drivers to sign a petition last fall calling for a new system that makes them employees of the trucking companies, grants them the right to organize and forces trucking companies to purchase and maintain the trucks. 

In addition, the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports has proposed requiring businesses at the port to pay a fee and to provide information about truck noise, emissions and labor standards in order to do business there. The coalition is also asking for a local-hire policy, which would reserve half of new jobs at the port for people who live in the areas with the highest poverty and asthma hospitalization rates.

Business interests, though, are fighting this model and attempting to divide the coalition, attacking environmentalists in the press for taking up labor concerns, claiming that this shows a lack of commitment to clean air. The American Trucking Association, an industry group, has threatened to sue if the ports adopt a comprehensive plan such as the one the coalition proposes.

The threats, however, didn’t stop the Port of Los Angeles Commission from adopting a plan on March 20 that requires the trucking companies to buy and maintain the new, modernized rigs and to employ truckers. And though the Long Beach port commission caved to industry pressure by approving a plan that left the independent contractor system in place, because of Long Beach’s proximity to Los Angeles, it seems likely that Long Beach could ultimately accept Los Angeles’ plan. 

Meanwhile, in late March, the Oakland commission agreed to charge businesses a fee for each container that passes through the port – with proceeds used to retrofit and replace trucks. 

Port commissioners also agreed to hire consultants to look at the economic impact of a comprehensive truck management plan, and are expected to make a decision based on those results by late June.

[Our plan is] good policy, and good policy trumps the grandstanding and misinformation campaigns that industry mounts,” says Adrian Martinez, project attorney for the National Resources Defense Council. Industry and other groups have been trying to separate us, but we’ve held strong.”

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Kate Sheppard is the political reporter for the online environmental magazine, Grist​.org. She has also written for The American Prospect, Bitch, The Guardian and MSN.
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