Cleaner air for Oakland -- but no one wants to pay for it

A raging battle over who should shoulder the overhaul of old, dirty trucks

GREEN CITY On Jan. 1, the Port of Oakland and surrounding areas will get cleaner air — and as many as 1,000 truck drivers may lose their jobs.

That's when the port's Clean Truck Management Plan (CTMP) takes effect, setting strict requirements for trucks operating in the port. The new rules are an effort to address the public health crisis in communities near the port, where diesel exhaust fumes have been contributing to rampant asthma and increased cancer rates.

While no one questions the need for cleaner air, there's still a raging battle over who should pay to overhaul old, dirty trucks — and how to make it possible for small independent truckers not to lose their livelihoods.

The new regulations, set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), ban all trucks older than 1994 from entering the port. Trucks built between 1994 and 2003 are allowed if they're retrofitted with a special filter, which by most estimates costs between $20,000 and $25,000.

Eventually CARB's regulations will reduce diesel particulate matter emissions by 90 percent in areas most affected by the noxious pollution.

The problem — at least for some of the drivers — is that two-thirds of the trucks running cargo in and out of the Oakland port are run by independent owner-operators, who say they don't make enough money on the cargo runs to pay for cleaner trucks or upgrades.

The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports of Oakland (CCSP) is campaigning with Teamsters Union members and some truckers and Congress members to take the burden off independent owner-operators. But some say the industry model itself is the problem — that all the drivers should be employees of larger trucking firms that can pay for the latest equipment.

"The lack of resources among [independent owner-operators] and the inefficiencies in the current system strongly favor a more employee-oriented drayage sector," states an economic impact report on the issue commissioned by the port and prepared by Beacon Economics.

Currently the drivers wait, engines idling, an average of 3.6 hours at or in the terminal. That's in part because they don't get hourly pay — which gives the shippers and trucking contractors little incentive to hurry things.

As independent trucker Abdul Khan puts it: "Everybody certainly wants to have clean air. I might not be happy with this law, but I'm the one in this business being affected by this pollution." Still, with a 2003 engine in his truck, he expects to be out of a job come Jan. 1.

Khan has been a driver at the Port of Oakland for five years. He and his wife and child had to leave their home of 15 years to move in with his brother after fuel prices rose by 300 percent last year.

Khan has been without health insurance for his entire trucking career. The Beacon report states that "most [independent owner-operators] do not have health insurance from any source." Yet they are among those who suffer most from breathing the polluted air all day at work.

In some ways, the problem is the result of the 1990s-era deregulation of the trucking industry. In November, 24 members of California's Congressional delegation, including East Bay Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee, Pete Stark, and George Miller, signed an open letter to the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee encouraging members of the House to "consider making changes to [federal law] so that California ports can successfully implement and enforce needed truck management programs."

The Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act was supposed to standardize the regulation of cargo carriers and encourage competition.

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