Port authorities and their private-sector partners plan to spend $155 billion on port improvements over the next five years to accommodate growing traffic, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration. At the same time, community groups and local activists counter that unchecked seaport expansion has damaged coastal ecosystems and brings a threat of dangerously high emissions levels from trucks, trains and ships entering the ports. A new report from the Environmental Protection Agency supports that view, calling for port authorities to take steps to curb diesel engine emissions.


In the “National Port Strategy Assessment: Reducing Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases at U.S. Ports,” the EPA explains that “diesel engines are the modern-day workhorse of the American economy.” However, the report also notes that although diesel engines “can be reliable and efficient, older diesel engines can emit significant amounts of air pollution which impact human health and the planet.”


In particular, emissions from diesel engines, especially PM2.5, NOx and air toxics such as benzene and formaldehyde, can contribute to significant health problems—including premature mortality, increased hospital admissions for heart and lung disease, and increased respiratory symptoms—for children, the elderly, outdoor workers and other sensitive populations, according to the report. What’s more, port-related diesel emissions, such as CO2 and black carbon, also contribute to climate change. Research increasingly documents the effects that climate change is having—and will increasingly have—on air and water quality, weather patterns, sea levels, human health, ecosystems, agricultural crop yield and critical infrastructure, EPA explains in the report.


Consequently, port authorities should act to reduce the harmful effects of diesel-engine emissions on port communities by replacing old equipment and improving cargo-handling operations, according to the report. For example, ports can replace older drayage trucks used to haul cargo to and from port terminals with newer, cleaner diesel trucks, which could reduce particulate-matter emissions by as much as 62 percent in the next five years, according to the new research. In addition to replacing trucks with newer diesel and hybrid models, the EPA report recommends several other tactics for ports to reduce emissions, including replacing train locomotive engines with newer models, using electric equipment to handle containers on the docks, improving operations to reduce the number of trucks idling as they wait for cargo, and requiring ships to plug in to shore power at berth.


Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, said in a statement that researchers found “many opportunities to reduce harmful pollution at ports that we know will work.” He called the results great news for the 39 million Americans who live near port hubs.


The good news is that some port authorities have already begun moving in this cleaner direction. An article in Saporta Report, for example, notes that the Georgia Ports Authority has spent $17.5 million since 2012 to replace diesel-powered cranes with electric cranes. So far in Georgia, 45 cranes have been transitioned from diesel to electric power, or purchased with the capacity to be converted to electric power, according to the ports authority.


Although the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the single largest fixed source of air pollution in Southern California, they too are taking action. For instance, Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, has appointed an advisory panel tasked with reducing air pollution from the Port of Los Angeles by expanding the use of zero-emissions technology. The 10-member Sustainable Freight Advisory Board, made up of representatives from industry, environmental groups, labor and air quality agencies, will advise the city-owned port on how to work with manufacturers to develop and deploy cleaner trucks, trains, ships and cargo-handling equipment.


What are your thoughts on air pollution around ports? Are port authorities making enough improvements?