Pollution and Health at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach

Published on
July 15, 2010

The gantry cranes at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach tower high above acres of stacked shipping containers – Hanjin, Matson, China Shipping – lined up along the harbor. These ports process 40 percent of container goods that arrive by ship in the United States; they directly or indirectly employ more than 120,000 people and generate billions of dollars in tax revenue each year.

But all of that economic activity generates pollution that harms the health of residents in the port communities of Wilmington and San Pedro and others lying along trucking routes that move goods from the ports to other parts of the state. Reducing the health impacts of the "goods movement industry" is a long-running challenge that has led to epic political and legal battles among port officials, shipping and transportation companies, regulators and community advocates.

Today, USC/California Endowment National Health Journalism Fellows learned about these battles, explored health research on port pollution, and saw firsthand the scope of port activity during an "urban ocean" harbor cruise. The lessons learned were underscored by the gravity of the Gulf oil spill, which seemed to be temporarily contained but still provided what David Freeman, the outspoken former president of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners, called "the most teachable moment in U.S. history."

"There are millions of spills taking place every minute. We are the fish, folks, and it's killing us and we've gotten used to it," Freeman told the Fellows. "This is a health issue the likes of which this civilization of ours has never seen. The challenge for this port, for every port, is to get off of fossil fuel and go electric, and have that electricity made by the sun and the wind."

Port pollution comes primarily in the form of diesel fuel exhaust, while other pollutants related to port traffic include ozone and nitrogen dioxide. Dr. Rob McConnell, a USC environmental health researcher, has conducted studies showing that pollution can exacerbate asthma and lung function in children. In adults, living in a high-pollution area is associated with higher rates of lung cancer, heart attacks and  respiratory disease. In fact, he believes the research is strong enough to justify regulations limiting people from living or working closer than 500 feet to a major roadway.

"There are pockets where people are really getting hurt," McConnell said. "We thought we'd show the data and people would listen. That hasn't happened."

There have been improvements. You no longer see thick black smoke coming from truck smokestacks as they travel through Wilmington, said Angelo Logan, co-executive director, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. Trucks can no longer idle endlessly as they wait for containers to be loaded, and the trucks must be new enough to meet stringent emissions criteria. Once docked, some container shipos can plug in to port-provided electricity to avoid using their generators, which use highly-polluting bunker fuel. There are some efforts to clean up Wilmington's rail yards. These efforts have been complicated by conflicting regulatory structures and the fact that the ports and local governments have limited authority over the shipping lines and container companies that are port tenants.  

Still, port officials, health researchers and community advocates agree that there still is much to be done.

 "When I was growing up, we used to call the weeks before Christmas ‘truck season' because of all the goods being transported on the Long Beach Freeway," Logan, the community advocate, said. "Now every day is ‘truck season.' The port impacts reach way beyond the port property. The environmental implications are enormous and we need to act on them in an urgent way."