For lawmaker Jenny Oropeza, the diesel soot that often cloaks the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is not an abstract phenomenon. Oropeza recently recovered from liver cancer, which she is convinced was in part caused by the pollution emanating from port operations.
So it's no surprise that the powerful Democratic Assemblywoman from Long Beach has made cleaning up the diesel emissions at the ports a top priority. Last year, as chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee, she introduced a bill giving local air pollution control districts more power to police diesel emissions at ports, airports and rail yards throughout the state.
Oropeza's bill, AB 1101, which passed the state Assembly last month, is the most significant piece of environmental legislation to progress in this year's legislative session. And it has prompted opposition from a broad coalition of trade-related businesses and organizations that has labeled it a "job killer."
"AB 1101 will be tremendously costly to local (air pollution control) districts and regulated facilities," according to a memo to the Legislature from the California Trade Coalition, which consists of business groups, shipping and rail companies and other diesel operators.
The coalition also has its eye on a number of other environmental bills that could emerge later in the legislative session, including one that would impose a $30 fee on all containers moving through the state's ports. Also raising hackles in the business community are a trio of bills aimed at identifying chemicals in the environment and the human body.
But all this legislation is now playing second fiddle to the main focus in Sacramento: negotiations over a massive infrastructure bond that could go on the November ballot.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed $68 billion in bonds and $154 billion in funds from other local, state and federal sources to upgrade and expand the state's long-neglected infrastructure. Legislative leaders have come up with their own, somewhat more modest proposals with more of a focus on housing.
The California Trade Coalition is concerned that amidst all the hoopla over the bond measure, other legislation could slip through that coalition members believe could harm the state's trade economy. And right now, Oropeza's bill is at the top of that list, though that could change as other bills are introduced later in the session.
Besides the cost burden, these business interests say Oropeza's bill would splinter regulatory control over diesel emissions, which is now handled primary by the state Air Resources Board. Instead of one set of regulations covering the entire state, each air pollution control district would be free to draw up its own regulations, something that the coalition says would make it much harder for diesel operators to comply with.
Locally, the bill would give power to the South Coast Air Quality Management District to work with facilities at the region's ports and airports to come up with a timetable and plan to reduce diesel emissions. The AQMD has identified the ports as the number one polluter in the region but has long been frustrated by its inability to reduce emissions there. The power to regulate diesel emissions from ships, trains and airplanes lies with both the state and federal governments.
The California Trade Coalition is also concerned by a new environmental regulation concept Oropeza has introduced with this bill, called "diesel magnets."
"There are operations in the ports that draw diesel pollutants like a magnet," said Oropeza, who added she is open to negotiations with the business community to make the bill more acceptable. "If we can identify these, figure out how much pollution they are generating and come up with a way to spread the cost of cleanup around, we could make significant progress in cleaning up diesel emissions."
But the trade coalition says this would merely force terminal operators and other centralized operations to pay to clean up emissions from trucks and ships that use their facilities.
"Facilities that may attract mobile diesel sources frequently do not own or have control over these sources," the coalition's memo said.
While Oropeza's bill has grabbed the coalition's attention early on, port officials and business groups are also keeping their eye on other port-related legislation. The most controversial of these is SB 760, by state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach. It would impose a $30 per container fee on shippers to raise funds to upgrade the port's infrastructure and help fund a crackdown on port pollution.
In a recent interview with the Business Journal, Lowenthal said it was only fair that those using the port infrastructure should bear some of the burden in paying to upgrade it. But business groups contend that slapping a fee on containers will raise shipping costs and ultimately, the cost of goods bought and sold by local businesses.
With this intense opposition, Lowenthal's bill got stuck in committee last year. But it could move forward in the next few weeks, as could another key Lowenthal bill that would cap growth at the ports if they fail to meet a goal of "no new net emissions."
Former L.A. Mayor James Hahn made this concept a cornerstone of his port policy; current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has vowed to go further, saying he wants to reduce overall emissions by making the Port of Los Angeles "the greenest port in America."
"We have a duty to the people and the businesses that rely on the ports," he said in recent comments. "And we have an overarching responsibility to protect the environment and public health of those impacted by our operations and decisions."
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