EPA forms team to clean up port and rail yard air pollution

Gina McCarthy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, AdministratorAfter a year of campaigning by the Moving Forward Network (MFN), a coalition of residents and their local organizations living near the nation’s sea and inland ports and freight corridors, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has agreed to take the immediate steps requested by the group to address the environmental health and climate impacts from freight facilities.  

In a June 2, 2016 letter to Angelo Logan, MFN’s Director, McCarthy announced her intention to meet the MFN’s requests to:

  • Set up an agency-wide working group to address toxic freight pollution, which medical and public health researchers have found to cause extremely high rates of asthma in children and premature deaths from lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and neurological disorders in adults.

  • Develop a strategy to take the measures necessary over the next two years to ensure that commercially available lower- and zero-emissions truck technology be used at all of the nation’s sea and inland ports.

  • Develop an engagement plan to work with affected communities to develop a freight transportation strategy aimed at reaching zero-emissions as quickly as possible.

MFN’s year-long campaign included petitions to McCarthy signed by tens of thousands of port area residents and their supporters, thousands of letters, meetings with EPA Regional Administrators and other managers and staff, and expert testimony at meetings of EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

MFN’s affiliates are located in nearly all of the nation’s sea and inland ports, including Los Angeles/ Long Beach, the largest U.S. port complex; Newark/NY, second largest; Savannah, the second largest container port on the East Coast; Baltimore; Charleston SC; Houston; Oakland; Seattle; and the inland ports of San Bernardino, Kansas City, and Chicago.

MFN mekim-gaddymbers have responded positively to Administrator McCarthy’s decision. Kim Gaddy, Environmental Justice Organizer for Clean Water Action and MFN Regional Representative for NY/NJ, expressed what many members feel when she said, “Kudos to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy for hearing and responding to the concerns and letters from residents in port communities and taking action to address the air pollution.”

Angelo LogaAngelo Logan preferred ASL picn, Moving Forward Network Director, expressed satisfaction with the outcome, and the need for the MFN and EPA to work hard to achieve success, “We are pleased that Administrator McCarthy has responded by making these commitments to mobilize EPA to work closely with us to end deadly diesel emissions poisoning port communities, particularly now that the technology to do so is available. We will pay close attention to the effectiveness of this process as we participate. EPA’s efforts over the next few months and during the next administration will be crucial to getting the job done.” 

The importance of solving this serious public health problem cannot be overstated.  Forty-five million people live in neighborhoods adjacent to ports and rail yards and along freight routes with heavy diesel truck traffic.  As a result, many suffer serious and life-shortening illnesses. These neighborhoods often have extraordinarily high rates of asthma in children, and similarly high rates of premature death from lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and neurological disorders in adults. The overwhelming majority of the affected areas are working class, poor communities of color, making deadly diesel pollution one of this nation’s most important environmental justice issues.

The two major problems created by diesel exhaust—illness and climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions—have available solutions. For example, technology now exists that can substantially reduce emissions from long-haul trucks and entirely eliminate them from trucks that serve local routes or are used in ports and railyards. A growing number of major international manufacturers have expanded production of zero-emission technologies for the freight industry, such as shore power for ships, battery-powered electric trucks, and electric cargo handling equipment.

The problem to overcome is the resistance of the logistics industry and their allies in political office and on the boards and staff of port authorities to shouldering the cost of the new technology. For years, these companies have been allowed to shift the nearly incalculable costs of the illnesses their diesel trucks have imposed—medical bills, lost work days, on top of pain and suffering—on the residents of port communities.

No voluntary programs have worked to reduce diesel exposure significantly. It is now time for the EPA,  the nation’s lead environmental regulatory agency, to prevail upon the port authorities in every port city to require the use of low- and eventually zero-emission vehicles as a condition for entry into their ports. The cost of ensuring that shipping and trucking companies purchase and use new, cleaner technology pales in comparison with the social costs imposed by the pollution and its health impacts.