Truckers Can’t Stop the Pollution Their Trucks Cause

By Viji Sundaram, New America Media
Tuesday March 27, 2007

Oakland—When Erick Gaines leaves home for work in the morning, he makes sure he leaves with his inhaler. Gaines is a trucker and he likes it. He loves being able to set his own hours, and he enjoys the independence his job gives him. But he wishes driving a truck wouldn’t take such a heavy toll on his lungs.  

“The soot and exhaust come from everywhere; your breathing gets affected,” the 45-year-old father of four says, pulling out an inhaler from his trouser pocket, as he stands beside his truck outside one of the busiest parts of Oakland’s ports, SSA terminal. “In the last two years, I have been hospitalized two times. You get hit with pollutants from the trucks and from the terminal equipments.” 

Indeed, the strong smell of diesel fumes coming out of the long line of trucks that are inching their way into the terminal on this cool spring day fills the atmosphere. The gridlock is an all too familiar sight at California’s three largest ports, in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, where many truckers ignore the signs telling them to turn off their engines while idling. Just a short distance away in the harbor, a thick plume of black smoke rises in the air, belched out by a ship that has just come in. 

“The ships run their engines while they are docked, for perhaps 12 hours, maybe even two days,” observed Diane Bailey, a scientist with the Bay Area chapter of the national, non-profit advocacy group, Natural Resource Defense Council. “And they run their engines on bunker fuel,” which she described as “the bottom of the barrel kind of fuel.”  

Gaines is one of several hundred truckers, most of whom are immigrants from Latin America, South Asia and Africa, who move millions of dollars in merchandise through the Port of Oakland—the nation’s fourth largest—each year. Some 2,500 trucks enter the port each day, and make a total of 10,000 truck trips. 

He is also among many who pay with their health for spending hours on what one researcher called a “sweatshop on wheels.” Without a union to represent them, and with take-home earnings that are unenviable, very few truckers can afford health insurance, said Bill Aboudi, owner of AB Trucking in Oakland. Aboudi is one of those rare truck owners who pay their drivers hourly wages, as well as health benefits. 

“When (terminal operators and port officials) hear the word, ‘trucker,’ they don’t think of a human being,” he said. “They don’t care about what all this pollution is doing to our health.” 

Study after study has shown that air emitted from the ports causes a variety of respiratory problems, and even cancer to people living in their vicinity. The Bay Area Environmental Collaborative last month released a study that documents that people living near large toxic releases bear the highest health risks. And a University of Southern California children’s health study indicates that children growing up around ports, refineries and freeways have low lung capacity. 

“Exposure to diesel particulate matter leads to high incidence of cancer,” asserted Peter Greenwald, a senior policy adviser with South Coast Air Quality Management District in Southern California, while addressing members of California’s ethnic media at a clean air workshop earlier this month in Riverside, CA.  

Citing figures from research, Greenwald said the consequences from air pollution in California are alarming. Each year, 2,400 premature deaths can be traced to goods movement, and each year, 8,200 people die prematurely from exposure to particulate matter. 

Rachel Lopez, campaign director with the Riverside County-based Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, said that “death caused by, or contributed by, pollution to Californians is more than that caused by murders, car accidents and AIDS combined.” 

Jesse Marquez, executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment, an activist group that seeks to reduce pollution from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, said that the cost of air pollution in California is $200 billion. If nothing is done soon to reduce it, the cost will spike significantly. His uncle, a Southern California resident, died of lung cancer three months ago “and he never smoked a day in his life.” 

In 1999, West Oakland neighborhood groups sued the Port of Oakland for polluting the area. The port agreed to use the out-of-court settlement money of $9 million for “air quality mitigation” programs. As of now, 40 trucks have benefitted from the port’s truck replacement program, with six more in the pipeline, according to Roberta Reinstein, the port’s manager of Environmental Programs and Safety. 

That figure does not impress environmental justice advocates, or the truckers themselves. They maintain the port is not doing enough, has been too slow in spending the settlement money for what was promised, and is being unrealistic in expecting truckers to upgrade their trucks. 

“At the end of the day, there’s no financial incentive for the truckers to upgrade their vehicles,” asserted Bobbie Winston, who has been covering the Port of Oakland for his publication, Bay Crossings, for years. 

Bailey agrees. “The reason why these trucks are so dirty is the drivers make so little money,” she said, noting that the average trucker clears no more than $20,000 per year. “It’s difficult to require the independent owner to bear the cost of cleaning up their trucks by either retrofitting or upgrading their trucks. The industries that are making the money from the freight transport—the shipping companies, the Wal-Marts and the ports themselves need to pick up the tab.” 

Aboudi said the prohibitive cost of retrofitting the 12 trucks he owns discourages him from doing it. “It would cost me around $30,000 to retrofit each truck, and that is more than what I paid for the used truck,” said Aboudi, who uses every opportunity to lobby port officials for better conditions for Oakland’s truckers. 

The California state assembly last year approved a “container fee” bill introduced by Senator Alan Lowenthal that would have slapped a $30 fee on containers handled by Southern California ports to reduce congestion, speed goods movement and reduce air pollution. Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, saying the bill should have included the Port of Oakland. Now Lowenthal has introduced a revised version of his container fee bill, this time including the Port of Oakland.  

This bill is designed to generate more than $525 million annually to help pay for improvements to the road and railway infrastructure, as well as add funding to promote clean-air programs tied to port trade throughout the state. 

The container fee is strongly opposed by retailers and ocean carriers, who fear it would divert cargo to nearby, cheaper ports in Mexico and the Pacific Northwest, as well as drive up prices on consumer goods.  

Marquez has played a lead role in forcing port officials at Long Beach and Los Angeles to agree to hold off on plans for expanding terminals at the two ports until port-generated emissions are brought down by at least 50 percent. Some of the money for the clean up will come from the $1 billion the public committed last November from a $20 billion ballot measure. 

In a few weeks, port officials are expected to unveil plans to lower the pollution levels at the two ports. One of the proposals will require ships to turn off their engines once they reach port and plug into the land power grid. Bailey said the U.S. Navy has done this with their vessels for decades. 

Trucking companies in Oakland are hoping the Port of Oakland will follow suit before more truckers succumb to the pollution. But some truckers are not overly optimistic. 

“These terminal operators think it’s their own little kingdom inside these fences. There’s no due process,” said Aboudi.