Federal lawmakers this week praised two Los Angeles-based clean truck programs that have reduced the amount of dangerous diesel pollution that infiltrates communities across the county.
But they also debated whether their intervention is necessary to ensure the programs survive and can be replicated in ports across the country.
A House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee held a hearing Wednesday on the clean truck programs at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Those programs have dramatically reduced the amount of diesel pollution from big rig trucks that travel from the ports up the 60 and 10 freeways to warehouses in Industry and beyond.
The programs have also become embroiled in lawsuits that some insiders say threaten their sustainability and could be resolved by congressional action.
"The past is a wonderful thing, and we have done well in the past to reduce emissions. It is the future that the Port of Los Angeles is worried about. We don't want to see all the work we have done... go to naught," said John Holmes, deputy executive director of operations for the Port of Los Angeles.
The Port of Los Angeles' clean truck program is being challenged by the American Trucking Associations on the grounds that it violates a federal law.
Truckers say federal law preempts state and local government from regulating the trucking industry, except under certain circumstances.
Some members of CongressAdvertisement are therefore advocating a change to federal law, though no legislation is being formerly considered yet.
Brea Republican Rep. Gary Miller, a member of the subcommittee that held the hearing, doesn't want the federal government involved.
"Deregulation got the federal government out of the business of picking winners and losers in the transportation industries... any effort to disrupt the important progress we have made over the last few decades would result in the loss of thousands of American jobs," Miller said.
"The air quality achievements at the ports are taking place under current law," he added.
The clean truck programs set a goal of reducing the emissions of trucks that access the ports by 80 percent by 2012. To do so, both programs generally ban trucks older than 2003 that have not been retrofitted to be cleaner.
Since the programs were launched in 2008, Long Beach Port estimates it has already achieved the 80 percent reduction, ahead of schedule, and Los Angeles Port is close - having reduced emissions by approximately 70 percent.
"Cleaning up the trucks at the ports is very important not just in the port areas, but throughout our region, especially along the routes heavily traveled by these trucks - the 60, the 10, even the 210... and especially for the people who live, work or go to school next to those highways," said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Diesel exhaust, often visible as black smoke that spews from the older trucks that travel along these corridors, is the main culprit for any increased cancer risk that comes from air pollution, Atwood said.
"When you look at wanting to reduce cancer risk from air pollution, reducing diesel is jobs one, two and three," he said.
While the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports have had similar results reducing emissions in the short-term, they have taken different approaches to their fixes.
A new big-rig truck costs $100,000 to $150,000.
Long Beach has helped trucking companies and independent drivers who own their own trucks buy new trucks by distributing $32.8 million in grants, paying up to 80 percent the cost of a truck.
In addition, the AQMD which has allocated nearly $80 million in voter-approved Proposition 1B funds for the grants to fund 50 percent the cost of a truck at either port.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, has tried to change the system of trucking at the ports by banning independent truck owner-operators from the port and limiting port access to only licensed trucking companies that have a concession with the port. Those concessions require that the trucking companies only use employee drivers rather than independent owner operators.
The argument is that trucking companies are much more well equipped than truck drivers to provide the capital necessary to replace older trucks and continue replacing them as they age. Truck drivers earn as little as $30,000 annually.
The Los Angeles Port also provided grants of $20,000 per truck for companies to purchase the new trucks.
The ATA's lawsuit challenges the port's ability to create such regulations, based on the federal preemption law. Though the lawsuit is ongoing, a judge's preliminary injunction has blocked the mandate that drivers at the LA port be employees of trucking companies.
"If the issue here is truly environmental standards, it does not make sense to me to discriminate against any individual because they do not work for a given company, if they want to be self employed," Miller said.
Holmes and the Natural Resources Defense Council say the clean air programs could face additional legal challenges unless the federal government steps in.
"There is no guarantee that tomorrow any piece couldn't be contested," Holmes said.
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