For years, West Oakland residents have pushed government officials to do something about air quality in their neighborhood, which is sandwiched between three major highways and the Port of Oakland, and dotted with industrial sites. In particular, locals have pointed to the estimated 2,000 diesel trucks that drive in and out of the port several times each day. Diesel exhaust has been linked to increased cancer rates, premature deaths and respiratory illness, including asthma, among West Oakland residents.
In 2010, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) instituted new rules, banning the oldest trucks from California ports, and requiring that others be retrofitted or replaced to reduce emissions.
Now, a team of UC Berkeley researchers has found that those rules reduced emissions from diesel trucks operating at the Port of Oakland by up to 50 percent in just the past year.
In a study published in the October issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the researchers reported that trucks’ emissions of black carbon, a particulate in diesel exhaust, declined by more than 50 percent, while emissions of nitrogen oxides, a key ingredient of ground-level ozone, dropped by over 40 percent. Diesel particulates exacerbate respiratory illnesses, and both black carbon and nitrogen oxides contribute to climate change, according to the EPA.
The CARB rules have two phases. In the first phase, the air resources board sought to reduce particulate emissions by banning all trucks with engines built before 1994 from railyards and ports statewide. Port trucks with engines built between 1994 and 2003 had to install a diesel particle filter or be replaced with newer, cleaner models by 2010. And trucks with engines built between 2004-2006 must install the filters by the end of this year. In the second phase, the board is seeking to tackle other emissions, like nitrogen oxides; by 2014, all trucks serving California ports and railyards will have to meet stricter emissions standards, equivalent to engines built in 2007. And over the next ten years, the rules will slowly phase in to apply to all trucks statewide.
Robert Harley, lead investigator on the study and a professor of environmental engineering at UC Berkeley, noted that it’s one of the first times that regulators have sought to deal with older vehicles, instead of simply increasing standards for new vehicles. “What California has done is groundbreaking,” Harley said.
Harley and his team spent several days in November 2009 and June 2010 in a mobile lab parked on the Bay Street overpass, capturing the exhaust of trucks as they drove to the port along 7th Street, below. The team was particularly surprised by the decline in nitrogen oxides, Harley said, since the rule’s first phase only addresses particulate emissions. The drop in nitrogen oxides indicates that truckers are likely trading in their old trucks for newer, cleaner ones faster than expected, Harley said.
That kind of turnover in the trucking fleet is exactly what backers of the rule were hoping for. Diesel trucks can put up to a million miles on the odometer, Harley said, and stay on the road for ten or twenty years. So while newer diesel trucks are much cleaner and more efficient, there are plenty of older trucks on the roads. The new rules aimed to speed that turnover rate, and get cleaner vehicles into the fleet faster. Harley had previously studied emissions in the Caldecott Tunnel. He found that natural turnover in the truck fleet also led to a 50 percent drop in emissions—but over the course of a decade.
“That’s the most exciting part of the study, is how quickly the emission reduction occurred,” Harley said. “Instead of taking ten years, it took eight months.”
Those who live and work at the port, however, have greeted the study with caution.
Margaret Gordon, a longtime West Oakland activist — and the first resident ever to sit on the Port Commission — worries that the study will be used as an excuse to slow further efforts.
“You got people in this industry going to take that and run,” Gordon said. “Based on this, somebody is going to say ‘we don’t need to do anything else for West Oakland.’”
Gordon pointed out that the study focused narrowly on the trucks themselves, and did not take air quality readings in the streets or homes of the surrounding neighborhood. It’s not yet known whether the reduction in truck emissions has made a significant change in the air people are breathing, she said. And many other factors that affect local air quality still need to be addressed, she said, including emissions from ships and truck traffic patterns.
Meanwhile, advocates for port truckers argue that the next phase of CARB regulations are threatening to put independent, local truckers out of business and replace them with larger companies that can afford the required upgrades. The majority of truckers now working at the Port of Oakland are self-employed owner-operators, who must pay out of pocket to upgrade or replace their trucks.
“Truckers have done an awful lot already to comply with CARB rules, in doing so they’ve cleaned the air dramatically,” said Ronald Light, executive director of the West State Alliance, which represents Port of Oakland truckers. “The CARB rules ask the truckers to go too far.”
Light and his organization want CARB to delay implementation of phase II, to give port truckers more time to comply with emissions standards.
When the rules were first formulated, Light said, both truckers and the air resources board expected that manufacturers would develop one filter that could reduce both particulate and gaseous emissions. That filter was never developed, Light said. So port truckers who upgraded to a 2004-2006 year engine model or installed the particle filter will still find themselves out of compliance once the second phase takes effect.
“Effectively you’re screwed, you have to replace your truck,” Light said, adding that the rules are requiring truckers to replace $5,000 trucks with ones that can cost $70,000.
One reason the technology does not exist is that the market does not yet exist, Light said. When the rules were formulated, they applied to all diesel trucks in the state. But all trucks except port trucks have been given an extension—until as distant a year as 2021—to comply with the new regulations. That means that the current market for new technology is much smaller than had been previously expected.
That delay, said Light, is all about politics: Companies representing state- and nation-wide long-haul truckers have representation in the legislature, while self-employed port truckers, many of them recent immigrants, do not.
“The port truckers are treated poorly because they lack influence,” Light said. “It’s a small number of truckers, it’s largely an uneducated immigrant community… they don’t have the same clout politically speaking.”
Margaret Gordon, the West Oakland activist, does not support a delay of regulations. But she said that given current economic conditions, port truckers need more financial support to help them comply with the rules. “I don’t want them to lose their jobs,” she said of local truckers. “I think there needs to be some kind of regulatory relief because of what the economy is. But at the same time, you need to put something in place to protect the people.”
For her part, Gordon would like the public to see the new emissions study in a much larger context. She wants regular meetings on air quality and public health among local, state and federal officials with meaningful participation from truckers and West Oakland residents — an ongoing conversation that isn’t happening now, she said.
“Til we have those kind of processes dealing with these issues, we’re going to still have these spot-check reports,” she said.
Correction: This story has been updated. The original story inaccurately stated that West Oakland activist Margaret Gordon supports a delay in regulations. She does not; she supports economic aid to help truckers comply with regulations.