Geraldine Knatz is the first woman to serve as executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's largest container port. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed her to the post after a months-long search. She's the first permanent port director since Larry Keller resigned in late 2004 amid allegations of pay-to-play practices in contract awards that rocked the administration of former Mayor James Hahn. For the New Jersey native, the appointment marks a return to the agency where she started her career in the port business. After four years as an environmental scientist at the Los Angeles port in the late 1970s, she went to the Port of Long Beach, first as head of the environmental division, then as planning director and finally as managing director. As the top administrator for the Port of Los Angeles, Knatz oversees a staff of 860 employees with an operating budget of nearly $400 million. The port in 2005 moved nearly $190 billion worth of cargo through its 26 cargo terminals, making it the eighth-largest container port in the world.

Question: The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach comprise the biggest port complex in North America, handling 40 percent of the nation's containerized imports. Do you think people understand just how important the ports are?

Answer: No, people really don't get it. Yes, some elected officials here in Southern California understand the importance of the ports, but others view this differently. I've been at meetings where people have come up to me and said, "Well, look at Seattle. They're trying to limit the growth of their port. Isn't that a good thing?" And I tell them: "No, it's not good. Look, who's going to have to make up for that slack? We are."

I look at all the port projects planned for the West Coast and even if all of them are built out, there still will not be enough capacity to handle what's forecast.

Q: What does that mean for our economy if even all these expansions can't handle the expected increase in cargo?

A: It means that somebody has to be looking at the national picture. Right now, any port in this nation can only support about 10 percent more than what it's currently handling. So when the Port of L.A. went down for a few days a couple years ago (during a labor stoppage), the ports in the South Atlantic states were completely swamped. We're a nation of importers and as long as imports grow like they have been, all ports have to expand. I'm a supporter of all ports.

Q: Two years ago, a labor shortage led to unprecedented congestion at the port, with dozens of ships lined up off the coast for days. Is the port prepared for the record amount of cargo expected this summer?

A: We are better prepared now. A lot of steps have been taken by all the various parties involved in goods movement to make things flow more smoothly. There was a recognition that we needed to have more labor than what we had. The industry then started the PierPass program that gave financial incentives for cargo to be moved during off-peak hours. There's also been a dramatic improvement in our rail movements out of the port.

Q: What's changed with rail operations?

A: Until recently, what would happen is the rail cars would arrive at the terminal, then the terminal operator would call for labor to load the cargo onto the train. Now, the labor and the rail cars often arrive at the same time, speeding things up greatly.

Q: What more needs to be done?

A: Right now, we're dredging a deeper channel to accommodate the larger 80,000 TEU (20-foot-equivalent container) ships. Most of the dredging is now done. We're also modernizing the berthing areas so that these bigger ships can move in and out more easily. We're continuing to improve rail connections to the terminals. Much of this was at a standstill when I arrived here six months ago and we're now moving on them.

Q: Why were these measures at a standstill and what did you do to move them forward?

A: They were caught up in environmental objections over growth of the port. Part of what we did when I came on board was to figure out a way to go forward. This meant dealing with the health risks associated with diesel and other pollution. We're taking each project one-by-one, and looking at the health risk issues. We're coming up with a plan to allow this terminal or that terminal to expand while at the same time lowering the overall pollution threshold.

Q: So what does it take to deal with these health risks?

A: Basically, it means cleaning up the trucks, cleaning up the trains and using alternative fuels. We also have to hook ships to shore-side power. That's the bottom line: if we can do these things, we can reduce the health risks. What I've done that's different is rather than going forward with a terminal expansion project that doesn't have all those things and then getting beat up in the community, we're making sure that these projects have all these things up front. That way, we can tell the community: "Here's the health risk now and here's how much lower it's going to be when we're through."

Q: Is this something that the shipping community is proving to be a willing partner or are you having to drag them through this process?

A: They are a partner if they want to grow. My assumption is that all the terminal operators will want to grow. Look what happened recently when Maersk announced it was switching to low sulfur coal to fuel its ships. The industry standard is 2.7 percent sulfur in the coal; Maersk is now using 0.2 percent sulfur. That's a 70 percent reduction. If one can do it, all the shipping lines can do it, no matter how difficult they say it is.

Q: What have you taken from Maersk's decision?

A: It's a perfect illustration of my new motto: "First, you're told it's impossible. Then, you're told it's difficult. Then, it's done." They're proving you can be growing and greening at the same time.

Q: What's the biggest environmental problem going forward?

A: The biggest issue now for the terminal operators is, what do you do with the trucks? How do you get emissions reductions from the trucks? I believe that's something the port has to take the lead on. You can't expect the terminal operators to do this alone.

Q: Is that something that's now in progress?

A: Yes. We're working on a clean air plan that will be released at the end of June. And when I mean "we," I mean both the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. This will be the first joint effort to reduce pollution. This is going to be a far-reaching five-year plan.

Q: What about port security? There have been several stories about how so little of the cargo is inspected. What's the port doing to reduce this threat?

A: We're working with our partners at the federal and state level on this. But we do have some initiatives that we've undertaken on our own, including installing radiation scanning portals. I happen to support 100 percent scanning of all containers coming into the ports. I'm not talking about emptying every container and inspecting the contents. Rather it would be an electronic scan that would detect radiation and changes in density inside the container holes where people, weapons or something else might be hidden.

Q: Don't most containers at least get scanned already?

A: No they don't. There are a few demonstration projects, including one in Shanghai, to scan the containers before they even get to our port. That's what I call the layered approach to security.

Q: Anything else on the security front?

A: We were going to issue our own identity cards for all workers at the port. But now, after the Dubai Ports situation, the federal government seems to be getting things in gear, so we may not have to do that.

Q: What has it been like being one of the few women in a male-dominated business?

A: I must say it has been more of a positive than a negative. Yes, I was one of the few women who worked in a non-clerical position at a major port. But it also put me in a position to benefit when people were looking for diversity. So when this committee or that association was looking for that diversity, I was tapped, often instead of a male colleague. Of course, these weren't just token appointments: I was a very hard worker and proved my worth. It's just that had I not been a woman, I might not have gotten those opportunities for prestigious posts.

Q: And now, as a port director?

A: I'm not the first woman to head a major port: there's Andrea Riniker up at the Port of Tacoma and Lillian Barrone at the Port of New York/New Jersey. But I'm the first woman to head a port here in Southern California. My being a woman has not been much of an issue.

Q: How did you get into this port business?

A: I got in through the environmental side. I had always been interested in science and the environment. As a kid, I was always carting cartons of water from ponds and studying what was in them. Then, after I graduated college, I had a chance to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I was stationed at the Sandy Hook Military Base near New York. I was the only female on the base at the time, but I really loved the work. Then I came out to the USC graduate school, which at the time was one of the premier centers for environmental study. When I was there, I saw a notice for a job at the Port of Los Angeles for an environmental scientist. Remember, this was in the mid-1970s, right at the start of environmental impact reports.

Q: What was that like?

A: At that time, the water quality at the port was truly terrible. We'd be happy to find any oxygen in the water amidst all the garbage and pollution. We took our findings to the Regional Water Quality Control Board and they began to clamp down on the pollution. Also, back then, the ports were dominated by an engineering attitude, which was: "We build, we don't mitigate."

Q: What were some of your biggest accomplishments at the Port of Long Beach?

A: When I headed up the port's environmental division, we broke new ground in mitigation, funding wetlands restoration in Upper Newport Bay in exchange for the ability to expand port operations. Then, as planning director, I focused on improving rail access to the port and helped lay the groundwork for the Alameda Corridor and on conversion of the closed-down Long Beach Naval Shipyard into a container terminal.

Q: As you moved up the administrative ladder, how did you also manage to raise a family?

A: The Port of Long Beach was very family friendly. You worked hard, but you also had time to play hard. Also, what has helped a lot is that my husband's jobs in the sales industry have been more flexible, allowing us to trade off on family duties.

Q: Sounds like the ideal arrangement. So why did you return to the Port of Los Angeles? Did Mayor Villaraigosa personally recruit you?

A: No, he didn't. Actually, I saw the job description for the port director and said, "Oh, my God, all these things are describing exactly what I've been doing." So I applied. I didn't really expect to get the job it's such a political post and so many other people put their hats in.

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