LOS ANGELES, California, January 5, 2010 (ENS) – A “backroom agreement” between the American Trucking Associations and the Long Beach Harbor Commission could illegally reverse efforts to improve air quality in communities near the Port of Long Beach, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club allege in a lawsuit filed last week.

The plaintiff groups complain that the deal gives the American Trucking Associations authority to oversee future updates to the Clean Trucks Program at the Port of Long Beach even if the Port is acting to protect public health and safety.

The plaintiff groups warn that the agreement, dated October 19, 2009, requires the Port of Long Beach to get ATA’s approval before making changes to the Port’s Clean Trucks Program or risk being taken to court by the trucking association.

The plaintiff groups complain that the Long Beach Harbor Commission has denied repeated requests to examine potentially adverse health impacts under the October 2009 agreement as required under the California Environmental Quality Act. They say the Port and the ATA circumvented the public process by entering into the agreement without approval by the Long Beach City Council.

“You can’t cut the public out of the conversation when you’re talking about the air they breathe and the health consequences they face,” said David Pettit, director of NRDC’s Southern California Clean Air Program.

“This deal puts the wolf in charge of the henhouse – with a likely result of dirtier air for local communities,” said Pettit. “Industry cannot be allowed to dictate clean air efforts and roll back the Port’s clean air advancements.”

“The problems posed to blighted communities and the environment are far greater than the simple issue of tailpipe emissions that this settlement tries to cover,” Tom Politeo, spokesperson for the Sierra Club.

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are serviced by roughly 17,000 trucks, which are responsible for tons of diesel pollution in the Los Angeles region contributing to premature deaths as well as chronic heart and lung diseases.

In spring of 2008, the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles adopted clean trucks programs to reduce air pollution and provide the ports with greater oversight over port trucking operations.

The Port of Long Beach ushered in the New Year with a Clean Trucks Program milestone – the clean-air goal has been achieved nearly two years ahead of schedule. Nick Sramek, president of the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners, said, “Truck pollution is a major concern in Long Beach and the region. I’m very proud that we’re close to meeting our 2012 goal two years ahead of schedule.”

About 90 percent of all truck engines now meet the strict U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2007 emissions standards, for a pollution reduction of nearly 80 percent since the program began in 2008.

The Clean Trucks Program has three components: a progressive truck ban that phases out older, dirtier trucks from port service over five years; a fee assessed on cargo containers moved by truck that will be used to help subsidize the purchase of newer, cleaner trucks that comply with the ban; and concession agreements that require any trucking company dispatching trucks hauling cargo to or from the ports to become a concessionaire and adhere to obligations outlined within the concession agreement.

In July 2008, the American Trucking Associations sued the cities and Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles claiming that the concession agreement components of both ports’ clean trucks programs is illegal under federal law.

Los Angeles and Long Beach argued that the concession agreement is a valid exercise of the ports’ authority as landlords and necessary to ensure that trucking companies meet environmental, safety and security standards that further the ports’ business objectives.

The October 2009 deal that is now the subject of the environmental groups’ lawsuit was reached to end ATA litigation against the Port of Long Beach. Litigation with the Port of Los Angeles is continuing.

In October, ATA President and CEO Bill Graves expressed satisfaction that the ATA and the Port of Long Beach could agree. “ATA has always strongly supported the environmental objectives of the Port and supports strict compliance with and adherence to all safety and security laws and regulations,” said Graves. “We never disagreed with their objectives, only with certain provisions of the Concession Agreements that we believed were unnecessary for the accomplishment of those objectives.”

The deal is based upon the motor carrier registration process, which will replace the Port’s Concession Agreement.

Both the Port and the ATA emphasized that the registration process, which includes an agreement by carriers to provide the Port with necessary operating information, will allow the Port to strictly oversee and enforce motor carrier’s compliance with federal, state, and port safety, security and environmental regulations.

In particular, motor carriers registering to operate at the Port must agree to enter all truck and driver information into the Port’s Drayage Truck Registry and to equip each truck with a radio frequency ID tag to allow the Port to monitor and control truck entry.

Graves said motor carriers also must certify that any truck dispatched to the Port will comply with all federal, state, and Port safety, security and environmental regulations – including those of the Port’s Clean Trucks Program.

But the plaintiff groups allege that the deal violates Long Beach Municipal Code and state law, which require public involvement and an environmental review.

The NRDC-Sierra Club lawsuit calls for “a legally-required state environmental study of the agreement that includes public comment before it can move forward.”

“This agreement repeatedly violates the public’s trust,” said Pettit. “Long Beach residents deserve transparency and honesty that the Port can easily provide if it simply complies with the law and completes a basic environmental assessment on the agreement.”

Under the agreement, the Port cannot stop trucking companies from using trucks that fail to meet environmental and safety standards, the groups allege. The Port cannot deny a trucking company access even if it commits large scale or repeated violations of federal, state, municipal, or port environmental, safety or security standards—unless the company’s motor carrier license is revoked by federal or state authorities, they complain.

In addition, the groups allege, the agreement does not include requirements that would result in environmental benefits, including enforcement provisions, environmental maintenance requirements, financial capability requirements, and auditing provisions.

Trade valued annually at more than $100 billion moves through the Port of Long Beach, making it the second-busiest seaport in the United States.

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