April 23, 2007 - From the April, 2007 issue

L.A. Harbor Commissioner Freeman Presides Over Efforts to ‘Clean the Place Up'

Long before anyone had ever heard of global climate change, David Freeman was leading the charge to reduce pollution and clean up some of the country's most massive utilities and public agencies. Having waged campaigns with the Tennessee Valley Authority and the L.A. DWP, Freeman is now focusing on the Port of Los Angeles as president of the Harbor Commission. As the single largest source of local pollution and greenhouse gases in the L.A. region, the port is a complex stew of public and private relationships that result in both diesel emissions and hundreds of thousands of local jobs. To balance economic prosperity with local and global health, the port has embarked on an aggressive Clean Air Action plan and other measures. MIR was pleased to speak with Commissioner Freeman about these efforts.


David Freeman

What charge did Mayor Villaraigosa give you when he appointed you to the Harbor Commission, and latter made you its president?

The main charge was to simultaneously grow the business and clean the place up. At first people didn't understand the rationale or merit of that approach. But I think they have come to understand that only by growing does the port have sufficient leverage over the tenants and the other people involved to persuade them to clean up the existing mess as well as make sure that the growth is clean.

What looked like a contradiction at first has turned out to be a recipe for action that was not taking place in the past.

What strategies has the commission promoted under your chairmanship?

We can't claim credit for the surge in imports, which is a function of international trade. What we can say is that thanks to the management team at the port, we have avoided the congestion that took place several years ago and assured the shipping business that we are interested in growth, that we can handle it, and that we cherish them as customers-even at the same time that we are insisting that we grow green. I don't want to overstate the role the Mayor and the five commissioners have played in that happening-all I can say is that it is happening, and that we are handling it at the same time that we are sending out this strong green message.

In light of the leverage that the commission and harbor staff have in developing the port's business, how do all of the players and interests come together in this greening effort?

The ships are elements of international trade, and the air quality regulation agencies in the state feel that they have limited authority over them, so they haven't tried to impose much on them. But our tenants have long-term leases that they all want changes on, and, as the landlord, the port has considerable influence on what they do. The railroads that serve the port want to expand, and their expansion plans have to be approved by the port. Our leverage comes from dealing with the shipping interests.

The weakest link in the chain are the trucks, because the truck drivers are mainly independent operators that don't have a balance sheet, have no money to speak of, can't finance new trucks, and couldn't even maintain or pay the taxes for a new truck if we gave it them. We have strong financial institutions in the shipping business in the railroads, but we have that weak link that has to be handled somewhat differently. But overall, what happened before Mayor Villaraigosa entered office and appointed the five of us, is that the business grew but the pollution grew in parallel.

Last year the ports of L.A. and Long Beach collaborated on the Clean Air Action Plan. What does that plan entail, and what are its consequences in light of your charge from the mayor?

The most important development is that Long Beach and L.A. are working together. This is a fundamental change in the environment. These are the two largest container ports in the nation, and our combined capacity is about three-quarters of all the capacity on the West Coast. By joining in a clean air action program, we entered into what I would call a race to the top, which avoids the argument that if one port goes green, it will lose business and fall to the bottom.

The second thing is that we are going to exercise our leverage. Frankly, we are taking the position that the price of approval for new projects-and we have a whole hatful of applications-is not just that the project will be clean, but also that they have to clean up the existing traffic. Also, we have been working hard at voluntary cooperation. We have gotten several of the shipping lines to use a lower sulfur fuel, which is resulting in lower emissions. The railroads have volunteered to put in cleaner locomotives in their applications-using the best available technology. The weak link-as I said-is in the trucks. We are addressing that with an action program that we announced just last week.

How are you addressing the trucks?

We have announced that over a five-year period we are going to have fundamental reform of the trucking industry serving the port. The individual owner-operators, who don't have the resources for cleaner trucks, will be replaced by companies or co-ops.

These entities must have a fair number of trucks so that we can have agreements with these entities where, in exchange for helping to finance and pay for cleaner and newer trucks, they will agree to have employees that will be there tomorrow (not just today) and where we can hold the people that we give concessions to responsible for having the trucks serve the port and not go elsewhere. They will maintain the trucks, meet safety rules, maintain the stability of employment through employee-employer contracts, and also uphold security by measures that go beyond the I.D. cards that are coming to tighten security.

This program will give us cleaner air, a more reliable workforce, and tighter security-all in a five-year period that will reduce truck pollution by 80 percent. I think it is important to add that our data, which will increasingly be made public, shows that we are actually getting less pollution already from the ships, on-dock operations, and from the railroads. The laggards are the trucks, and it underscores the necessity of moving swiftly in the truck clean-up program, which will begin no later than January 1, 2008.

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MIR interviewed Maersk's Gene Pentimonti about their voluntary measures to curb pollution. How effective are their efforts?

We are very proud of the role that Maersk is playing. Gene has taken a leadership role in their initiatives, the biggest of which is that they have already switched to lower-sulfur fuel. They have set an example for other shipping companies, who are now following their example. We are in harmony with their role and consider them an ally.

Then there is an oil terminal proposal for the docks that has been around for some years now. How are you grappling with that issue?

The terminal project is in the latter stages of the EIR process, which has been delayed because we had to add consideration of global warming as a result of AB 32. But we expect that the EIR will be out in a matter of months, and that project will come before us for approval. I am not pre-judging any project, but certainly we are interested in moving them out and deciding on them.

You were a pioneer in the Tennessee Valley Authority and a champion of the reduction of sulfur oxide pollution, which contributes to acid rain. How does that challenge compare to those presented by the diesel particulates and greenhouse gases at the port?

I bring a feeling that it can be done-that just because the challenge is large and it hasn't been done before, doesn't mean it can't be done. Before I got there in 1977, the Tennessee Valley Authority built power plant after power plant without scrubbers and pollution control equipment. They were the nation's largest sulfur emitter. We cut the emissions in half in three years with investments in scrubbers and lower-sulfur fuels. It caused us to raise the electric rates 7 percent, but, frankly, the sun still rose and after we got done the air was a whole lot easier to breathe. And customers didn't go elsewhere because they thought the price of electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority was too high-it just became part of the cost of doing business.

I think that we have a similar situation here. If we just get on with the job, we will find that this is going to cost, maybe, a nickel on the cost of a tennis shoe or a dime on the price of a television set. It will be absorbed in the market a whole lot easier than this $3.50-a-gallon gasoline.

The Port of L.A. is just one stop on the chain of goods coming into and going out of this country. We've had a long debate about the impacts of the surge of goods movements through the harbors, through our communities on our freeways, and the health consequences thereof. What is the role of the Harbor Commission in helping to relieve this strain?

I think we are doing exactly that with our Clean Air Action Plan. What doesn't get sufficient attention is the amount of jobs that the goods movement industry creates. We are the largest engines of prosperity in the region. The mayor is fond of telling his friend Nick Patsaouras that the GNP of the port is larger than the GNP of Nick's country, Greece. This is a big deal in terms of jobs. The role of the port is to ensure that it continues to be.

Every time a ship comes in here it brings a crew that comes on shore and spends money, and the ship buys supplies. Perhaps you can't relate to these really large numbers, but you can relate to the longshoreman that have to the work, to the restaurants that get business from people buying meals there, the hotels that get business, especially from the cruise business, and all the rest that contributes to our economic progress.

Elaborate on the roles that the longshoreman and their unions, the NGOs, and the environmental groups are playing as the port tries to strike a balance between air quality and growth.

Perhaps the most persuasive group of people are the longshoremen, who breathe this air on a daily basis with much more intensity than any of us ivory tower folks do. They are reinforcing a broad coalition of environmental and community groups that have fought this fight valiantly for years. They have created the political interest in this issue. This is a beautiful example of civic action and community interest. I doubt seriously that without the agitation of various interest groups that the issue of port pollution would have had enough visibility in the eyes of elected officials.

My hat is off to the folks who were in this fight long before I got here. We are coming in and taking this issue across the finish line, I hope. But, that is itself is an important thing to do, and we are not doing it in any anti-business way. This is the most pro-business policy imaginable. Frankly, the lack of activity on the pollution front has empowered the citizenry to go to court to stop the growth of this port. We hope citizens will back our Clean Air Action Plan and not extraneously oppose the growth that is needed to put food on the table for more people.

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