Cleaner air for Oakland -- but no one wants to pay for it - Page 2

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

But mistreatment of drivers and detrimental working conditions are, says CCSP director Doug Bloch, some of the consequences of deregulation, which essentially bars local or state governments from legisutf8g industry working conditions.

The Port of Oakland, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District set up a grant fund to help drivers retrofit their equipment to meet the new standards, and some did. But others who sold their older trucks and bought upgradeable models lost out when the money ran dry.

Robert Bernardo, spokesperson for the port, told us the grants were unusual: "Typically, whenever a regulation comes into effect, by CARB or DMV, it's incumbent upon business owners to purchase any upgrades," he explained.

That's not a simple story, though, since the finances of port shipping are immensely complex. In theory, the bigger players in the industry — the large trucking companies and the corporations doing most of the shipping — have the access to capital for creating an ecologically-sound fleet and more power to negotiate shipping prices.

When items are shipped from overseas, shipping lines set the prices. Since the commerce is international, there's no regulation of anything, including prices. The shipping lines set the prices for the trucking companies, which in turn tell the independent truckers what they'll pay per load. The independently-contracted drivers have no leverage at all.

Matt Schrap, an intermodel transport expert at the California Truckers Association, notes that international shipping rates "are negotiated somewhere in Shanghai and set by steamship lines. Then you go into contract for two to three years at locked-in rate." Since the steamship lines aren't subject to antitrust laws, he warns of their ability to collude in price-setting.

So the debate has become as much about labor issues as the environment. Some activists argue that the entire economic model of independent drivers contracting with trucking firms is unworkable, and would prefer to see all the drivers become employees. Not all drivers want that; some are happy with being independent. And the trucking contractors love the current system, since they pay no benefits.

Valerie Lapin, spokesperson for the Coalition of Clean and Safe Ports in Oakland, says that that port drivers are misclassified as independent. She explains that typically they can only work for one company, which tells them where and when to go. With the current classification, trucking companies "skirt all responsibility for paying taxes and benefits. Drivers have to pay for everything — trucks, fuel, maintenance, registration, and parking. And [the trucking companies] pay them really low wages."

The fate of the new regulations may depend on what happens to a legal battle at the Port of Los Angeles. L.A. has sought to mandate that trucking companies hire drivers as employees, and the port would allow only newer, cleaner trucks to enter.

But the American Trucking Association sued the port under FAAAA, saying the law bars the city from requiring employee-drivers. The courts put the program on hold until further hearings, scheduled for May 2010.

Paying with our Health, a 2006 report by the Pacific Institute assessing the practicality of "ditching dirty diesel" to improve health in the communities suffering from freight transport pollution, concluded that "the industry is quite capable of standing on its own and paying for cleaner technologies, instead of standing on the backs of California's poor and minority communities."

It's not clear what the truckers who own banned trucks will do come Jan. 1. Some say they will look for work elsewhere.

And there's still the issue of whether the port will have enough clean trucks to haul all the cargo. Bernardo insists that won't be a problem.

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