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Ports Gone Green: A Brief History

By Joshua H. Silavent - Staff Writer

September 11, 2012 - “It’s impossible. It’s difficult. It’s done.”

This simple, if not also high-minded, motto in many ways captures the success regional ports have had implementing green programs to reduce emissions and improve air quality.

Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, is credited by
many for driving innovation and implementation of green technologies responsible
for cleaning up the port. With all the success of recent years, it’s no wonder
her motto is, “It’s impossible. It’s difficult. It’s done.”
(Photograph courtesy of the Port of Los Angeles)

Indeed, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have led the way in developing eco-friendly business practices in recent years, all while securing the long-term viability of two major economic engines for the region.

Perhaps the best evidence of this success lies in the fact that truck-related emissions at the ports have been reduced 90 percent in just the last four years.

“It’s impossible. It’s difficult. It’s done.”

Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, lives by this phrase. It inspires her, motivates her and keeps her coming back for more, whatever the challenges.

And it’s a good thing, too, because there was a time when the future of the two ports seemed in peril.

Business was booming in the late 1990s thanks to a bullish national economy and new global trade partnerships. But repercussions were coming with the new century, though no one knew it at the time.

“Our business had grown so dramatically it really kind of caught up with us and took us a little bit by surprise,” said Bob Kanter, managing director of environmental affairs and planning at the Port of Long Beach.

As a consequence, air pollution had reached dangerous levels. A number of health studies identified the risks, exposing the prolonged need to clean up the environment in and around the ports. Lawsuits and protests ensued. Everything seemed to hang in the balance.

“The watershed event was . . . the China Shipping litigation,” said Knatz, also the president of the International Association of Ports and Harbors.

In 2003, a settlement was reached in the dispute over construction of a 174-acre container complex at the Port of Los Angeles to be operated by China Shipping (North America) Holding Co.

The port had not been able to get an environmental impact report approved while the matter was hung up in the courts, threatening plans to expand and attract new customers in the highly competitive international trade industry.

As part of the agreement, the port established a $50 million environmental mitigation fund and began facilitating shore-to-ship electrical power to reduce diesel engine emissions. In hindsight, though, the port had made a much deeper commitment to shrinking its environmental footprint in the years to come.

“We realized that we had to really reduce health risks out there,” Knatz said.

In 2006, the mayors of Long Beach and Los Angeles came together with the board of commissioners from both ports to approve the Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP).

“We reached out to Long Beach and said this really has to be a bay-wide thing,” Knatz said.

The cooperation of both ports was essential to meeting, and ultimately exceeding, the goals outlined in the CAAP.

“Air quality doesn’t know a boundary,” Kanter said.

Moreover, it made sound financial sense for the ports to work together.

“You didn’t want [businesses] playing one port against another,” Kanter said.

Though trucks were the biggest polluters, officials quickly realized that they must broaden their scope.

“We were taking responsibility for all the sources [of pollution],” Knatz said.

This meant combating all source categories, including trucks, ships, trains, locomotives and harbor craft. Moreover, port officials recognized that a no-net increase in pollution was not a significant enough standard to set.

“Staying where we were was not a good situation,” Knatz said.

Looking back, however, the Clean Trucks Program was a turning point for the ports. But getting it off the ground was a “monumental task,” Kanter said.

“We had to do this sensibly,” he added.

Knatz said estimates about lost business resulting from the new green initiative were as high as 15 percent.

“But we had no choice,” she added. “Our back was up against the wall.”

Despite some initial pushback from the industry, trade businesses eventually came on board with the sea change in green policy.

Bob Kanter, managing director of environmental affairs and planning at the Port
of Long Beach, helped spearhead the port’s transition to environmentally
responsible operations. Among the many green initiatives the port has tackled,
perhaps the most successful has been the Clean Trucks Program. Since 2008,
truck-related emissions have been reduced 90 percent. “It’s probably one of
the programs that I was involved in that I’m the most proud of,” Kanter said.
(Photograph by the Business Journal’s Thomas McConville)

“The industry realized we were serious,” Kanter said.

So those initial economic concerns have now subsided thanks to the success of turning over the truck fleet, allowing each port to set new goals and implement new programs.

For example, the ports have created a comprehensive plan to guard water and sediment quality in the bays and shore-to-ship power is becoming the norm at berths.

Moreover, the environmental benefits are driving economic fortunes.

The Port of Los Angeles has embarked on an ambitious $1.2 billion, 10-year redevelopment of the San Pedro waterfront. And the Port of Long Beach is currently building the Middle Harbor terminal facility, which will double capacity and reduce emissions through increased use of shore-to-ship power.

Were it not for advances in green technology and a commitment to environmental stewardship, it’s possible these projects would have been left to the realm of fantasy. The ports of today might still look like the ports of a decade ago. Or worse.

“I think we would’ve seen an erosion of the economic benefits [of the port],” Kanter said. “[Long Beach residents] want to and should enjoy the economic benefits of having a port in their city. It really is an asset. But they shouldn’t have to suffer a disproportionate amount of the impact.”

Instead, the ports are driving change throughout the industry.

Knatz said the Clean Trucks Program has taken off at other ports along the West Coast. And the Port of Los Angeles recently became the first in the United States to sign onto the Environmental Ship Index, which tracks emissions from seafaring vessels and provides financial incentives to ship operators that meet or exceed standards. Finally, the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation was established in 2011 to “improve public health, quality of life and the natural environment of the local communities.”

The Port of Long Beach, meanwhile, is now signing green leases with terminal operators, which require cleaner yard equipment, more on-dock rail use and LEED certifications for new buildings, among other things.

So will the ports ever see a day when they produce zero emissions? It’s a worthy goal, Kanter said, but it might take replacing ship engines with sails.

Then again, skepticism reigned when the ports first embarked on their green overhaul.

Somewhere, Knatz can be heard saying, “It’s impossible. It’s difficult. It’s done.”