Federal Action Needed to Protect Port Truckers from Clean Air Catch 22

Kari Lydersen

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have greatly reduced their diesel emissions while protecting truckers' rights, but an industry lobbying group is fighting back.

The thousands of diesel-spewing trucks that drive in and out of the country’s primary seaports each day have a major impact on the health of surrounding communities – home largely to low-income, minority and immigrant populations in places like Newark and West Oakland. Diesel emissions from ships and intermodal equipment add to massive air pollution that is linked to significantly higher rates of cancer, cardiac disease and respiratory disease.

And many of the workers who drive these trucks live in these same communities, working long, grueling and low-paid hours without benefits only to return home where they and their families are impacted 24 hours a day by health effects of that same industry. (Los Angeles Spanish-language TV reporter Julio Cesar Ortiz tackled this issue in a moving piece he describes here).

A handful of Clean Ports” state laws and initiatives are attempting to reduce diesel emissions and otherwise make it healthier to live around ports. But ironically these efforts can put drivers in a catch 22, where they are unable to afford the retrofits or new trucks necessary to meet stricter pollution limits.

For example, Seattle’s clean ports law means drivers must spend about $500 more a month, a cost many cannot afford. That means they may lose their livelihoods, take on staggering debt or start driving in another location – just shifting the pollution and taking an even greater toll (in increased commutes and/​or reduced pay) on their own health and family life.

This situation exists largely because of an epidemic of misclassification of truckers as independent contractors even when they are essentially employed by companies. Misclassification is a common tactic used in many industries to avoid paying workers fair wages and benefits. California attorney general Edmund G. Brown has sued a number of trucking companies for misclassification, winning a fifth major suit in February.

Los Angeles’s Clean Trucks Program, launched in October 2008, has managed to protect truck drivers and air quality, by cracking down on misclassification and mandating that companies bear responsibility for upgrading their trucks. But now the American Trucking Association is challenging that law in court.

In the Huffington Post, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council explain the lawsuit and its implications:

The trucking industry is trying to weaken the progressive clean truck program, arguing that the port has no authority to reform port trucking operations that occur on its own property or even cure inefficiencies that affect the bottom line. Industry representatives go so far as to argue that the port should be barred from verifying whether trucks comply with clean air standards when entering port facilities…The litigation by the trucking industry relies on obscure federal law that wasn’t designed to restrict the right of local governments to protect their residents’ health…Los Angeles has survived these challenges so far, but the specter of intense litigation with the trucking industry may dissuade other ports and municipalities from pursuing similar programs to reduce diesel pollution and save lives.

The courts have so far ruled against the trucking association, but the case continues.

A publication by The Partnership for Working Families says the average truck driver takes home only $29,000 a year after expenses, fuel and insurance while working 11 to 14 hour days without health insurance or other benefits.

Labor, public health and environmental advocates in Seattle, Los Angeles, Oakland and Newark/​New York have banded together in a coalition calling for reform of the port trucking system to clean up the air and protect truckers’ rights. They are seeking amendments to the Federal Motor Carrier Act to empower states to enact programs and protections like Los Angeles’s nationwide – including shielding them from lawsuits. They say deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1980 Federal Motor Carrier Act is in large part what led to today’s dysfunctional system.

The coalition – including heavy-hitters like the Teamsters, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the American Lung Association of California – are essentially saying port communities shouldn’t have to choose between jobs and the environment, as countless policy or regulatory issues are often framed: truckers and their families in port communities should not have to choose between making a living and breathing decent air.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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