Should low-paid truck drivers shoulder the cost of cleaning up pollution at Los Angeles harbor? That’s the question before a federal court this week in a case that is a major test of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plan to clean up the air in one of L.A.’s most polluted places, where trucks, trains and ships poison the air at great risk to the health of thousands of residents.
The issue goes far beyond polluted areas of the harbor communities of San Pedro and Wilmington. Trucks serving the harbor travel an area extending to the Inland Empire and beyond. Hard hit are the small cities in the Southeastern Los Angeles County industrial belt, which have high levels of pollution.
Initially, the harbor department proposed a Clean Trucks Program, to take effect in 2008, which would require the truck operators carrying goods in and out of the port to comply with strict air pollution control standards. But it was stopped when the truckers’ lobbying organization, the American Trucking Association, got a temporary injunction against the harbor department plan, The issue before the court this week is whether the temporary injunction should be made permanent.
If allowed to proceed, the harbor department plan would be expensive for the trucking companies. Trucking companies would pay for new trucks and anti-pollution fittings for old ones and to maintain the vehicles. Only companies awarded permits and drivers who worked for them would be allowed to work at the harbor.
The companies want to lease trucks to drivers, who would be “independent contractors.” The drivers would have to pay for maintenance out of their meager incomes. Trucking company opponents released a report last week saying that the income of port truck drivers is now about $10-$12 an hour. And if they somehow were able to save enough, they would be permitted to buy their used trucks.
Harbor department chief Geraldine Knatz said the trucking companies should be “responsible for the trucks and drivers they dispatch to our port.” The American Trucking Association wants the port ”‘to chase down those individual truckers—an enforcement measure that is neither practical nor realistic,” she said. Knatz said the best way to enforce pollution standards is to “hold trucking companies responsible for the trucks and drivers they dispatch to our port.”
The harbor department’s position is supported by a coalition of environmental groups and the Teamsters Union, It would like the drivers to be employed by trucking companies so the union can organize them.
In testimony to the harbor commission last week (provided to me by Coral Lopez, the coalition’s senior communications officer) truck driver Diego Lopez said, “I ended up working day and night and was taking home only a couple hundred dollars a week. Every week I had to pay $952 for the lease, the insurance, the fees and another $400 for fuel. I was left with very little. “
There are now about 10,000 truck drivers working at the harbor, the coalition said, down from 16,000 because of the recession. With work scarce, they are being asked to carry an unfair and heavy burden.