Growing up in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles, Jesse Marquez was no stranger to the environmental hazards of commerce. The Marquez family, whose neighborhood is ringed by oil refineries and the massive Port of Los Angeles, still recalls days of bad air the way a New England family might recall a bad snowstorm.
But it wasn’t until 2001, after port officials had called Wilmington residents to a meeting to announce yet another new construction project, that Marquez realized the full price he and his neighbors had paid.
“We were all talking about the air, and one guy said all three of his daughters had asthma,” recalls Marquez, then forty-eight. “And I realized all three of my sons had asthma. And as we looked around we realized everyone in the room had a family member with asthma. That’s when I realized this thing is a lot more serious than I thought.”
The epiphany encouraged Marquez to found a small but influential group today known as the Coalition for a Safe Environment, one of a half dozen Hewlett Foundation grantees, small and large, that are working to encourage the Port of Los Angeles and all the trucks, railroads, and cranes that are part of its so-called “goods movement system” to go as green as possible as quickly as possible.
At Hewlett, these nonprofit organizations are part of the Foundation’s New Constituencies for the Environment program. The goal of the program is to broaden the environmental movement among different ethnic groups in California, whose population today is more diverse than ever, as well as among labor groups, medical groups, and communities of faith. In addition, the initiative targets economically disadvantaged communities, often people of color, which bear a disproportionate burden of environmental problems because of their proximity to commerce.
“At the same time that we strengthen these community organizations, we also want to tackle the biggest environmental issues we can,” says Danielle Deane, the Foundation’s Environment Program Officer who directs New Constituencies for the Environment.
According to Deane, a Hewlett-commissioned poll by the Public Policy Institute of California released in July found that the state’s residents name air pollution as California’s most important environmental problem, a finding that holds across political parties, all regions of the state, and all racial and ethnic groups. (For more on that poll, visit http://www.ppic.org/main/publication.asp?i=760.)
All of which brings us back to Jesse Marquez, the ports, and the organizations working to clean them up.
It may come as a surprise to car-choked Angelenos, but the Port of Los Angeles and its neighbor on San Pedro Bay, the Port of Long Beach, together comprise the largest stationary source of air pollution in the Los Angeles region. After nearly two decades of steady growth, today the two adjacent ports are the fifth largest port complex in the world with more than 40 percent of the nation’s imported goods arriving through their docks. And flow of trade is expected to triple in the next twenty years, according to port projections.
But this commerce does not come without cost. According to the California Air Resources Board, diesel pollution from land and sea freight transportation to and from the two ports causes 2,400 early deaths, 360,000 sick days for workers, and 1.1 million missed school days for children. All told, the health impact of this diesel pollution on Californians is estimated to cost $19 billion a year. According to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, emissions from diesel engines are responsible for 70 percent of pollution-related health problems in the region. And this doesn’t consider the ports’ impact on global warming.
In the years since its inception, Marquez’s organization has evolved into an effective community organizing group, surveying residents about health care problems, turning out crowds to pressure public officials, and testifying at hearings on an array of public policy issues related to the ports. “Give me an environmental impact report, and I can tear it apart and find every flaw in it,” says Marquez, who today sits on virtually every major advisory committee in the region that deals with the ports and the related movement of goods.
If Marquez’s group works close to the neighborhoods, the Sacramento- and Los Angeles-based Coalition for Clean Air, a key grantee of New Constituencies for the Environment, focuses on enforcement and reform of regional and state air policy and regulations.
Tim Carmichael, former president and current senior director of policy for the Coalition for Clean Air, says the group’s work in the late 1990s to reduce diesel pollution at large trucking distribution centers around the state eventually led it to the ports.
“In 2000 or 2001, we did our first port investigation and tours and got a sense of how the complex worked,” he says. “The sheer volume of containers moving in and out was shocking to everyone who looked at it.”
Soon after, the Coalition for Clean Air-along with the National Resources Defense Council (another Hewlett grantee) and local residents-joined a lawsuit to force the Port of Los Angeles to obey the California Environmental Quality Act and compel the port to take action to reduce pollution. As a result of a 2003 settlement, the port developed the world’s first electrified container ship terminal in 2004, among other changes.
By using land-based electricity to operate while in port rather than its diesel engines, a ship can reduce its particulate emissions by as much as three tons during the two to three days each ship typically is in port. Put another way, every day that a ship idles in port with its engines running it pollutes more than five diesel school buses do in an entire year.
The environmental groups say victory in the lawsuit was a watershed moment in changing public policy and elected officials’ attitudes regarding port pollution.
“In twenty-five years, Wilmington and San Pedro residents had never stopped a port of L.A. expansion project,” says Marquez. “Now five and a half years after we started, the ports are being discussed everywhere, and they can’t build a darn thing without negotiating.”
Carmichael agrees: “There’s no comparison between the attitude of the ports in 2000 and today. Port officials have put forth bold initiatives that they didn’t even consider in 2000.”
The progress on reducing port pollution that began under former Los Angeles mayor James Hahn has accelerated with the election of Antonio Villaraigosa, who has promoted “green” urbanism as a hallmark of his administration.
The bold initiative to which Carmichael refers is an ambitious multi-year program adopted by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in 2006 to cut air pollution and reduce health risks emanating from the ports. Among the goals of the $2 billion Clean Air Action Plan is a commitment to reduce air pollution from all sources by 45 percent in the next five years.
(The Port of Oakland, the nation’s fourth busiest, recently released a voluntary inventory of all its emissions as a first step toward pollution reduction.)
Today, the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, an umbrella group that includes Carmichael’s and Marquez’s organizations and more than two dozen others, is working to realize the first step of the action plan: a program to replace all trucks entering the ports with a new generation of less-polluting vehicles. The governing bodies of the ports are expected to vote on some version of the plan this fall.
Hewlett Program Officer Deane credits yet another Foundation grantee, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, as a key developer of the umbrella group’s truck plan.
“The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy commissioned vital technical research that the port used to develop the truck plan, organized critical labor support, and is doing much of the heavy lifting to bring these groups together,” Deane says. “Each of them has a separate and crucial role to play.”
And at the Coalition for Clean Air, spokeswoman Annette Kondo notes that awareness of port issues has begun to ripple out from the environmental groups to the larger public. “People who thought this was just an issue for the ports are starting to realize that their DVD players from China also contribute to the problem,” Kondo says. “They’re starting to see the interconnected nature of the problem, and that it’s statewide.”
For his part, the indefatigable Marquez, whose group takes on the neighborhood oil refineries as well as the ports, has his eyes on the horizon.
“We’re moving into looking at a proposed hydrogen power plant in Carson,” he says. “And two more are proposed for Northern California. They generate huge amounts of carbon gases that they say they want to put underground. We’re working to develop our expertise.”
Grantees of the Hewlett Foundation’s New Constituencies for the Environment Program Who are Fighting Pollution at California Ports
Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice
Coalition for a Safe Environment
Coalition for Clean Air
East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice
Liberty Hill Foundation
Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy
National Resources Defense Council