Boatloads of Trouble
How We Are Importing Our Way to Destruction
Here’s another environmental assault we subsidize -- and that a tax shift would fix. This 2008 article was posted by Alternet on September 5.
By Stan CoxAir pollutants, even if they weren’t altering climate, still threaten your health and even your life. A major source of that contamination is the infrastructure that moves imported goods from seaports to retailers.
Imports -- mostly consumer and industrial goods, not oil -- continue to dominate over exports in America's trade equation.
Some of the flow through our ports seems circular. In some categories used to tally trade, such as "pleasure boats and motors", "toiletries and cosmetics", and "medicinal equipment", the dollar values of goods coming in and those going out are strikingly similar. Go figure.
The nation's seaports are now handling 1.4 billion tons of goods annually. A big share of that traffic is coming across the Pacific from Asia.
Seattle and Oakland handle some of those Asian goods. Most enter through the twin seaports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Together, they comprise the third-largest container-handling facility in the world, receiving 40% of all imports entering the country.
In and near the world's ports and coastal sea-lanes, emissions from oceangoing vessels caused 60,000 premature deaths in 2002. Ships' crews, dockworkers, truckers, other port personnel, and local residents are all vulnerable.
Oceangoing ships burn the lowest of low-quality diesel oil. The fuel used by locomotives isn't much better. Trucks burn a greater quantity of fuel per ton hauled, with correspondingly high emissions. Within a several mile radius of the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, these air pollutants kill about 75 people per year.
Imported merchandise is sorted at sophisticated warehouse complexes known as "logistics facilities" then distributed throughout the country. In recent years, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, lying east of Los Angeles, have seen construction of logistics warehouses -- roofing and concrete covering the equivalent of 7,300 football fields. Similarly vast acreages surrounding the warehouses are paved as well.
The value of goods being imported nationwide has risen 68% just in the past decade; that's after adjustments for inflation, and it excludes oil imports. The sheer volume of imports, growing by the day, threatens to overwhelm all attempts to clean up the environment along trade routes.
The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have announced a "Clean Air Action Plan”. The goal is to reduce emissions of diesel pollutants by almost 50 percent in five years.
As part of the program, starting Oct. 1, trucks entering either of two big Southern California ports will have to comply with new rules on emissions and safety, and older trucks with poorer pollution controls will be banned.
On top of that, the Los Angeles port has decreed that only drivers who are employees of trucking firms, not independent contractors, will be allowed to enter the port. American Trucking Associations (ATA), which represents most of the nation's trucking companies, has sued to block the new rules.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has filed a "motion to intervene" in opposition to ATA's lawsuit. Other groups, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, are part of a coalition with NRDC to support the new environmental regulations.
NRDC spokesperson Jessica Lass says, “Trucks need to be fully loaded, to minimize the number of trips in and out. And we need to be sure they are fuel-efficient and well maintained."
Gardner Kan. has a city clean-air ordinance that prohibits truck drivers from letting their engines idle for more than 10 minutes. The area’s logistics center, however, lies outside the city limits.
Controlling pollution from oceangoing ships will be even more difficult than regulating trucks. Ninety percent of the bunker-fuel-burning, fume-belching vessels coming into the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are foreign-owned and -flagged.
The Environmental Protection Agency has a voluntary program under which some ships will use better grades of fuel in their auxiliary engines (which they switch to when they're in and around ports), reduce their speed near ports, and plug into shore-based power sources when at dock. NRDC hails the program as a step forward, but John Husing of the Southern California Association of Governments regards the EPA as useless. “What they are doing is lame at best."
Says Husing, "For a while there I was Public Enemy Number One in the environmental movement's eyes. They are concerned about people's health. I argued that poverty is a public health issue, and they didn't like that. But they seem to be coming around."
JJS: However bad environmental problems are, we make them worse with subsidies. For starters, we could quit subsidizing fossil fuels, shipping, and trucking. That’ll make it more expensive to send goods on multi-thousand mile journeys.
More subtly, our taxes also favor traders over local companies. We could make domestic products more competitive by not taking their sales, production, workers’ wages, and investors’ profits.
Third, we could reduce the cost of doing business by improving land use and making commercial locations more affordable. Both benefits show up where jurisdictions tax private land or lease public land (most port districts are public land) at closer to full market value. Then owners quit speculating, develop prime sites, fill in cities, and shorten freighting distances. Taxing land also lowers its price, so businesses need not borrow so much.
This tax shift from labor to land not only reduces poverty but also overhead; then closer by firms can sell for less, take market share from well-traveled products, and reduce the consequent contamination from shipping.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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