Cargo containers, like those visible from Knoll Hill (upper left, click images to enlarge) take several different rail and freeway routes as they travel to “inland ports” and distribution centers. (Enlarged map with captions.)
Increasingly, cargo travels in both directions on this route. First, cargo leaves San Pedro Bay by train and truck on its way to the inland ports. After it is processed there, the cargo is shipped back to the L.A. area by truck.
The round trip increases toxic and global warming emissions and noise. It also increases fuel consumption and demand on taxpayer-supported infrastructure.
America’s massive trade imbalance aggravates this further. Four out of five ships containers that arrive in the U.S. full of cargo go back empty. On land, this translates to nearly 40% of rail and trucking capacity used to haul empty containers or trucks and trains without any containers at all.
—Harbor Vision Task Force
Story By Andrea Hricko
SPECIAL TO THE SOUTHERN SIERRAN
Globalization and international trade are changing the landscape and economy of southern California – in critical ways that we may not fully understand today. We have already become a “distribution economy” – importing, moving and selling more consumer goods than we manufacture ourselves.
As these changes occur, not enough attention has focused on reducing environmental impacts of international trade, especially health effects from air pollution. The San Pedro Bay Ports are already the largest port complex in the U.S. – and growing. Dozens of new construction projects are on the books to help maximize the flow of cargo containers from Asia, through the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and on to the rest of the country. The projects primarily rely on ships, trucks, trains and yard equipment – all burning diesel, or even dirtier fuel, such as bunker fuel.
New research findings
At the same time as these massive infrastructure projects are being proposed (see naughty or nice), research findings by southern California investigators are demonstrating the serious health effects of air pollution, especially on children, and particularly in those living in close proximity to busy roads and freeways.
Results from the Children’s Health Study, involving 11,000 children and conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine show that:
• Current levels of air pollution in southern California are harmful. They result in chronic, adverse effects on lung growth in 18 year olds.
• Air pollution can bring on asthma and make asthma worse.
• Living in close proximity to busy roads is associated with increased risks for asthma.
• Residential traffic exposure is linked to deficits in lung function growth and increased school absences.
Someone suffering a pollution-related deficit in lung function as a child will probably have less than healthy lungs all of his or her life, scientists believe, and poor lung function in later adult life is known to be a major risk factor for lung and heart diseases.
Scientists are particularly concerned about exposure to particulate matter, tiny particles of soot, and their relationship to heart disease. On days when the levels of fine particle pollution go up, deaths from lung disease and heart attacks also rise. In SEPTEMBER 2007, two new studies were published, raising additional concerns about particle exposure and effects on the heart:
• A UCLA laboratory-based study shows that people with high cholesterol may be more vulnerable to heart disease (hardening of the arteries which increases risk for heart attack and stroke) when they are exposed to ultrafine particles from diesel exhaust.
• A German study reports that adults who live for years in close proximity to high volumes of traffic are more likely to develop hardening of the arteries.
Health impacts versus economic growth
Taken together, the new plans for Port expansion and these recent scientific research findings appear to be on a collision course. And they will indeed collide unless the Ports sincerely consider the health impacts that these new scientific studies are revealing and ensure that all necessary steps are taken to protect the public’s health as the environmental health impacts of new projects are considered.
In addition, to protect against health impacts, the Ports and government agencies must adopt the most stringent regulations for emissions from ships, yard equipment, trucks and locomotives – and also make wiser land use decisions.
The two Ports have come together in adopting a “San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan,” a step in the right direction for reducing diesel emissions, if fully implemented. An essential part of the plan is a program designed to regulate trucks coming in and out of the Ports – and their emissions. Short-term, we need a reduction in today’s Port air pollution levels, quickly getting pollution levels down to those present in 2001 (as a start) and then working to attain more dramatic reductions in air pollution by 2020.
Land use decisions
But stricter emission regulations cannot solve all the problems that will ensue from port growth. Wiser land use decisions are also needed for facility siting and protecting the public by mitigating off-port community impacts. The latest research findings make it clear that siting or expanding major traffic-polluting facilities near homes and schools is unwise. Yet the Port of L.A. is considering just such efforts. One example:
BNSF Railway has proposed building a new railyard to be called the Southern California Intermodal Gateway (SCIG) on land it would lease from the Port of Los Angeles. The proposed location is directly across the Terminal Island Freeway from an elementary school, high school, homeless shelter, daycare center, community park, and a veterans’ home. Homes are just one block away. With the latest research results in hand, it is clear that this location is an unwise choice for building a rail yard with diesel locomotives and more than a million trucks a year operating in such close proximity to homes and schools.
A more appropriate alternative, public health advocates argue, would be increasing the capacity for “on-dock rail.” With on-dock rail, containers go directly from a ship to a train, no trucks needed.
Upcoming Ports and Goods Movement Conference
If you would like to learn more about this topic, please consider attending the 2-day “Moving Forward Conference” on finding healthy solutions to reduce health and community impacts of ports and goods movement. November 30, 2007 – December 1, 2007; Carson Community Center, Carson, CA. The Sierra Club’s Harbor Vision Task Force is a community partner and will be participating in the meeting. For more information, visit: www.theimpactproject.org.
Andrea Hricko, MPH, is an Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine at USC, where she directs a Community Outreach and Education Program.