Port slowdowns worsen air pollution in neighboring communities

Amanda Peacher Dec 1, 2021
Heard on:
A ferry passes the Port of Los Angeles. Neighborhoods surrounding the port have suffered from pollution linked to transporting massive volumes of goods. Mario Tama via Getty Images

Port slowdowns worsen air pollution in neighboring communities

Amanda Peacher Dec 1, 2021
Heard on:
A ferry passes the Port of Los Angeles. Neighborhoods surrounding the port have suffered from pollution linked to transporting massive volumes of goods. Mario Tama via Getty Images

If you think about how a port works, it’s sort of like a pair of lungs: imports in, exports out.

And the community next door also has to breathe. 

“That ship that’s coming in, that’s bringing in the goods, is emitting pollution. That truck that’s going by my apartment is emitting pollution,” said Chris Chavez, who lives near the Port of Long Beach and works for the nonprofit Coalition for Clean Air

This past year, slowdowns at ports caused supply chain bottlenecks all over the world. But for people who live near these ports, these bottlenecks have health consequences. 

For years, portside communities in California have suffered from polluted air — which is linked to high rates of asthma, cancer and other problems. 

Now, with more diesel trucks in line to load or unload at ports, and giant ships idling off the coast waiting to dock, the air quality is even worse. 

Since the port slowdown, the increase in pollution is roughly equal to emissions from 5.8 million passenger cars, according to the California Air Resources Board

The increase is partly driven by online shopping. Many of the treadmills, kitchen gadgets, yoga pants and plastic toy cars that Americans have been ordering since the start of the pandemic are getting to the U.S. on ships that dock in California. 

Some 40% of container imports come through Los Angeles and Long Beach, and it’s something Chavez wishes more Americans were aware of. 

“Just that simple click of ordering something may have an impact on somebody else’s lungs,” he said.  

A ship with containers full of Dole bananas enters a port terminal in the San Diego Bay.
Every dole banana bought West of Denver comes through one of the port terminals in San Diego Bay. (Photo by Amanda Peacher)

Once a week, a massive, beige ship docks at one of the port terminals in San Diego Bay. It’s from Dole, and it brings bananas, pineapple and other fruit, vegetables and salad bags to be loaded onto trucks, then distributed across the U.S. 

Every Dole banana sold west of Denver comes through this bay, according to the port; so do many of the new cars Americans buy. San Diego hasn’t been backed up like the LA and Long Beach ports, but it is busier these days. 

For years, transportation around the port and elsewhere in the region has contributed to the terrible air quality here. Up and down the California coast, the path of the supply chain cuts through low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, including in San Diego.  

“So the portside communities … are objectively some of the sickest communities in California,” said Port of San Diego Commission Chair Michael Zucchet.  

A number of sources show that cancer, heart disease and asthma rates are very high in the communities near the port, particularly asthma in children. All those ailments are associated with high concentrations of diesel particulate pollution. 

So, this year — after decades of community pressure — the Port of San Diego set the goal to have only zero-emissions trucks and heavy-duty equipment at its terminals by 2030. That’s a more aggressive timeline than the state requires. 

Zucchet said he knows it’ll be hard for companies that use the port. “Some are fearful about how this will impact their ability to do business.”

But by setting an ambitious goal, he’s hopeful the port can attract grants and funding that might not otherwise be available. And, Zucchet said, something needs to change for the neighboring communities.  

Elizabeth Chavez-Carrasco moved to the portside Barrio Logan neighborhood 11 years ago. She is now a junior in college. Growing up there, it didn’t occur to her that the air was unhealthy. 

“When I was younger, I didn’t know that it was a problem,” Chavez-Carrasco said. 

But on field trips, she noticed other neighborhoods didn’t have this kind of noise and traffic. “They didn’t have these hazard zones, like right next to residential homes, or they had more green spaces,” she said. 

From a bench in a Barrio Logan park, she could see Interstate 5 in front of her and a major bridge overhead leading to Coronado Island. The hum and noise of traffic is a constant there, in addition to the pollution that comes with it.  

Barrio Logan was a vibrant working-class neighborhood before industry moved in and traffic corridors were built, Chavez-Carrasco said. “And it’s not a coincidence that it’s happening in a predominantly Hispanic and low-income community,” she said.

There’s a term for this, said Diane Takvorian with the Environmental Health Coalition: environmental racism. She said it started happening in these portside neighborhoods after World War II. 

“Homes were discarded, homes were mowed down so that industries could be built, and the shipyards and the military moved in,” Takvorian said. 

If the port can reach its goal of no-emissions trucks, that will be a huge win, Takvorian said. But it’s years away. 

Meanwhile, many California ports are still moving record numbers of goods — which means that better air quality for port neighbors is also a long way off. 

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