St. Mary Medical Center provides services to North Long Beach residents paid for through the port’s Community Grants Program. Photo courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.

The Port of Long Beach has long been an economic engine for the city—but it’s also contributed to pollution and poor health outcomes for the communities that live nearby.

In recognition of that reality, the facility has worked to minimize its environmental and health impacts. In 2006, the port, along with its Los Angeles counterpart, adopted the Clean Air Action Plan, and ever since, the twin ports have pushed long-term initiatives to work toward zero-emission operations. Many of the programs and plans, though take years—decades, even—to implement, and impacts on residents don’t lessen with only good intentions.

So the Port of Long Beach has also moved to mitigate local impacts with more immediacy.

In 2009, the Port of Long Beach created the Mitigation Grants Program, an initiative to pay for projects to offset the environmental impacts of port operations. The program allowed the port to use funding for major capital improvement projects—such as the new Long Beach International Bridge and Middle Harbor—to be used for mitigation.

“What we recognized is … while we work on implementing [long-term] programs, we really need to be making beneficial impacts at the same time,” Morgan Caswell, manager of air quality practices at the port, said. “This is another way of trying to reduce our impact within the community by investing in the community that’s being disproportionately impacted.”

The voluntary program was well-received, Caswell said, but feedback indicated the project types—focused just on air quality—were too limited. To expand the program, the port first had to quantifiably demonstrate its impact on neighborhoods across the city.

The port underwent a Community Impact Study that showed the impacts on air and water quality, noise and traffic on residents citywide—but especially near the port and along the 710 Freeway, the main artery for carrying goods to and from the port. The analysis was the first of its kind for any seaport, Caswell said.

Following the analysis, the program was updated in 2017 and was renamed the Community Grants Program with an approved $46 million in funding over the next 12 to 15 years to spend on projects related to water quality, noise pollution and traffic, in addition to the original focus on air quality, Caswell said. The Board of Harbor Commissioners said the program should spend between $3 million and $4 million per year.

Since 2009, the port has set aside $65 million and spent or committed over $33 million between the original and updated program.

Port capital improvements projects such as the expansive Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility that require an environmental impact report also pay into the Community Grants fund, Caswell said. Since the 2017 update, the port has invested about $14.8 million into the community, according to its website.

Project types vary, ranging from door replacements at Boys & Girls Club facilities throughout the city to updated window and air filtration systems at local schools to creating park and open space. The program also has paid for health education, community outreach and mobile clinics, mostly centered around asthma and other respiratory diseases, which are more prevalent along the 710 corridor than other parts of the city.

But some locals say the program doesn’t go far enough.

Carlos Ovalle, 63, is a Long Beach resident of 50 years who serves as the president of the Riverpark Coalition and regularly offers public comment during Harbor Commission meetings. He said that he appreciates the port’s acknowledgement of its impacts on the surrounding community but said the level of annual investment is insufficient given the port’s overall budget.

“I mean, $3 million to $4 million sounds like a lot of money—to a person on the street it’s a huge deal,” Ovalle said. “But how much money is brought in by the port every year? And putting that into context given that we’ve had record-breaking trade happening, $3 million is nothing.”

The Board of Harbor Commissioners in May approved the port’s 2022 budget of $622.4 million. Of that, over half—$239.1 million—is earmarked for capital improvement projects, including modernizing terminals, rail, bridges, waterways, roads and other infrastructure. The port has plans to invest nearly $1.6 billion over the next decade in capital improvements meant to enhance productivity and efficiency, while bringing its emissions to zero by 2035.

The port, for its part, said the dollar amount for the grants program was determined through a Mitigation Monetization Study as part of its Community Impact Study. Heather Tomley, director of planning and environmental affairs at the port, said the study used “well-established metrics to quantify the port’s proportional contribution to community impacts.”

“Using those metrics, the monetization study applied cost factors to establish a funding level for mitigation strategies that is consistent with California State Lands Commission,” Tomley added. “The [study] was commended for its technical merit by the [commission].”

Community Grants have ranged from as little as $2,200 to over $825,000.

“We have a range and that was intentional as part of the program,” Caswell said. “We want small, medium and large organizations to apply. We’re trying to be as inclusive of a program as possible.”

The port’s overall budget also includes its 611 employees and pays into the city’s Tidelands Operating Fund that pays for projects and maintenance along the city’s coast. Those projects, however, do not benefit residents who live along the 710 corridor, which Ovalle and other residents have come to call the “diesel death corridor” due to the high volume of semi-trucks moving in and out of the port spewing emissions.

Research backs up those residents’ concerns. On a range from 0-20, with 20 being the greatest impact, the average Environmental Justice Screening Method score for neighborhoods along the 710 is 15, compared to the county average of 11, according to the Neighborhood Data for Social Change, a project of the USC Price Center for Social Innovation. The score means the cumulative impact of air pollution for the 20 neighborhoods along the freeway is greater than 80% of all other neighborhoods countywide.

Neighborhoods along the 710 average 36% more particulate matter concentrations than the county average, according to CalEnviroScreen 3.0. Even at moderate levels, particulate matter negatively affects the short- and long-term health of people, especially children, seniors and those with respiratory illnesses. Studies show that people living in high-emissions zones are more likely to develop asthma, heart disease and lung cancer.

Ovalle, who grew up along the 710 and still lives adjacent to the corridor, said he has watched as countless people in his family and community developed cancer and respiratory diseases, which he attributes to air pollution in the area.

“We’ve discussed it with our respective oncologists and they’ve determined that none of the cancers are related,” Ovalle said. “The only thing they can point to is the environment.”

Residents living along the 710—over 70% of whom are Latino or Black—average 62 asthma-related visits to emergency rooms per 10,000 people, while county neighborhoods that are more than 70% White average 30, according to 2017 data from CalEnviroScreen 3.0.

Graph courtesy of the Neighborhood Data for Social Change, a project of the USC Price Center for Social Innovation.

Again noting the increased cargo volumes that have worked their way through the port since the onset of the pandemic, Ovalle said the increased truck traffic will only worsen air quality.

“We are essentially subsidizing with our health the profits of the shipping industry and mega-shippers like Walmart and Amazon,” Ovalle said. “[The port plans] to do all these things … in the future and I just don’t see that we have that time. In 10-15 years, it’s going to be too late for a lot of people.”

The port, officials said, is doing what it can—with the help of those impacted.

Deciding on which projects to fund is based on community outreach, Caswell said. Each year, the port hosts workshops to hear from residents and the project types they would like to see funded. Historically, the community advocates for health programs and air filtration, Caswell said, but recently parks and open space have become more popular.

Virtual workshops for input on 2022 projects were held Dec. 8 and 9. The port also released an online survey for input to inform funding priorities through 2024.

Ovalle attended the Dec. 8 meeting, where he advocated for increased park and open space in the highest-impacted communities, particularly the Westside and North Long Beach along the 710 Freeway. Ovalle noted that those areas of the city have substantially less park acreage than East Long Beach, which does not suffer the same level of impact from port operations.

While the main focus of the program is Long Beach, the impacts of port operations do not adhere to city limits, Caswell said. Signal Hill along with portions of Carson, Compton, Dominguez Hills, Paramount and Wilmington also fall into the eligibility zone of the program and funding has been allocated to projects in those areas, Caswell said.

Areas outside Long Beach were not eligible for funding until the 2017 update, Caswell added.

“A focus of the program right now is to increase that outreach,” Caswell said, “and make sure folks unfamiliar have resources and information they need so they can also access the dollars.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.