Clearing The Air

Janet Wilson’s April 23rd article in the LA Times should make officials hang their heads in shame.

“A third-grader raced into school nurse Suzanne Arnold’s office … The nurse sighed … ‘Ambrosia is one of my regulars. Last week she had an asthma attack’ … Hudson Elementary is tucked in the crook of California’s busiest industrial arm. A few miles from the booming ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, its playground backs up to the truck-clogged Terminal Island Freeway, flaring refineries and double-stacked freight trains powered by belching locomotives.

“More than 40% of retail goods imported to the U.S. funnel past this poor but tidy neighborhood.

“Soon, a global truck and train off-loading center may be built less than 1,000 feet from the schoolyard. It is designed to speed up freight transport and improve regional air quality by pulling diesel trucks off the freeways, and would add 1 million more truck trips a year to local streets.

“‘What’s being proposed is sacrificing this neighborhood for the greater good,'” said Patrick Kennedy, director of the Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization.

“Community activists worry that scenario may be repeated along shipping corridors across the state, from West Oakland and Roseville north of Sacramento to Commerce and the Inland Empire.

“They say a new statewide emissions-reduction plan approved by the California Air Resources Board on Thursday, meant to minimize pollution caused by the skyrocketing goods movement, is unfunded, contains no new mandatory controls of polluters and would still result in an estimated 800 premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of lost school and work days each year from the exposure to diesel soot, ozone and other pollutants.

“The freight transportation corridors ‘are not located in isolated industrial areas, but in fact pass through hundreds of cities, millions of residential homes,’ Jesse Marquez, executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment, said in a recent speech in Wilmington.

“It is the local communities that deal with bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion … that have to breathe the diesel fuel exhaust from ships, trucks, trains and yard equipment every day. It is our children that are suffering from an asthma crisis … It is our friends and family members who are dying.’

“Studies back him up. Students less than a quarter of a mile from major freeways are 89% more likely to suffer from asthma.

“Children in Long Beach and other industrial cities are three times more likely to suffer decreased lung development.

“Workers at ports and freight yards and area residents experience higher cancer risks and heart disease.

“‘Californians who live near ports, rail yards and along high traffic corridors are subsidizing the goods-movement sector with their health,’ said Andrea Hricko, associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, which has done several studies. Hricko noted that the air board’s own study estimated 2,400 people die each year in some of California’s poorest communities from causes tied to goods-movement air pollution.

“‘That constitutes a public health crisis. Can you imagine if 2,400 deaths annually were attributed to avian flu? And if state officials said, ‘We have a plan to reduce that to 800 deaths, in 15 years?’ Every expert in the world would be working on it. These communities deserve the same treatment.’…

“‘We need to do as much as much as possible as quickly as possible. Our whole plan is structured to do that,’ said air board executive officer Catherine Witherspoon.

“The proposed loading facility behind Hudson Elementary is a case in point, she said. State officials say the facility is ‘vital for relieving congestion and reducing emissions.’

“In exchange, rail officials have pledged to make the yard ‘green,’ with electric cranes and other equipment emitting no soot or other air pollution.

“As for the aging, short-haul trucks that would ferry goods between the docks and the site, Witherspoon and her staff said up to $ 400 million in public funds should be allocated to buy 10,000 clean replacement trucks. But trucking officials say the cost would actually be $ 1.2 billion.

“Even if new trucks are bought, Witherspoon acknowledged that ‘there will always be some residual emissions … We can bring the risk down substantially, I’m hesitant to say to completely acceptable levels, but to substantially lower levels.’…

“Last year, a volunteer group of mothers did traffic counts next to the school with USC researchers, tallying 580 trucks in an hour.

“Goods movement into Southern California is exploding by 1.4 million containers a year and is expected to triple by 2020, if infrastructure can be built.

“After hearing from China and other Asian trading partners that the flow of DVDs, sneakers and other goods was bottlenecked in Southern California, and being confronted with mounting evidence that air pollution cuts lives short and costs billions in healthcare and lost productivity, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger 18 months ago ordered his business, transportation and environmental agencies to draft a joint plan.

“The goal is to improve the flow of goods while rolling back harmful air pollution to 2001 levels – a target the state must meet under approaching Clean Air Act deadlines.

“The emission reduction plan approved last week was the first step. A second plan on streamlining goods movement is due out in June. But funding is up in the air. The governor’s ambitious infrastructure bond proposal, which included $ 1 billion for air quality, failed to make it onto the June ballot, and its chances in November are uncertain. The air board’s piece alone would cost $ 6 billion to $ 10 billion to implement …

“Other than injurious particulate matter emitted by trucks, which is expected to drop as new state and federal standards kick in, the largest sources of harmful pollution from goods movement are the 1,900 ocean vessels that steam into the ports each year, powered by filthy, low-cost ‘bunker fuel,’ aging main engines and auxiliary engines they use to idle at port while unloading …

“Many experts credit the new health studies, combined with vocal protests by community groups, for successfully pushing industry and government officials to act.

“The studies show $ 19.5 billion in costs annually to the state from deaths, lost workdays and healthcare costs.

“‘Those studies were the impetus for change … We’re beginning to look at the public health costs, and it’s either pay now or pay later,’ said Wally Baker of the Los Angeles County Economics Development Corp.

“Neighborhoods like West Long Beach are not only the recipients of freight air pollution, but also home to the workforce that staffs the trucks, warehouses and other shipping jobs, he said. ‘The poorest communities have been the stomping grounds for most industrial facilities and most toxins. Because of the health studies … and the growing political voice … it’s becoming socially unacceptable, and businesses in Southern California recognize that.’

“The school already goes into a lockdown mode – keeping children inside – several times a year when a nearby refinery flares excessively. South Coast Air Quality Management District officials recently approved pilot funds to test an air-filtration system at the school.

“On the same day Ambrosia went to the nurse’s office, four more students complained of chest pains. As she phoned the parent of one, the school nurse offered her own take on health conditions there.

“‘I just have one question for all of them,’ Arnold said, referring to industry and government officials. ‘Would they send their children to school here?'”

[We have a question or two as well. If 800 premature deaths are guaranteed annually by port-generated pollution, and if billions of dollars are being spent annually as a result of the health problems caused by this pollution, and if it is known that the annual volume will increase at a rate of 1.4 million containers per year and will triple by the year 2020, then why doesn’t it occur to at least one of the hundreds of highly-paid industry and state officials to direct this increasing volume to 6 or 8 of the idle California ports? These ports could be set up for a fraction of the “billions” now being committed, and California’s problems would disappear. Has pollution numbed their brains?]