A royal port mess

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Today, as the economy has continued its downward slide and the volume of imported containers plummets, the prospects of these already-impoverished drivers repaying their [clean truck] loans are worse than ever.” –Richard Holober, executive director, Consumer Federation of California

Who would’ve thought that the effort to reduce truck exhaust pollution at one of the biggest ports in California could dissolve into such a thicket of recrimination and rhetoric worthy of a low-rent soap opera? Then again, this IS California we’re talking about here.

The latest salvo in the on-going clean truck battle at the port of Long Beach got fired this week by the Consumer Federation of California (CFC). Last year, they released a report entitled "Foreclosure on Wheels: Long Beach's Truck Program Puts Drivers at High Risk for Default," and accused Daimler AG and its Daimler Truck Financial subsidiary of “predatory lending” in its effort to offer port truckers leases low-emission trucks complaint with the ports’ rules.

The CFC ratcheted that effort up this week in a vitriolic letter sent from Richard Holober, CFC’s executive director, to Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG, accusing the German truck maker of all sorts of malevolent business practices.

“It is irresponsible for Daimler to continue to finance trucks for owner-drivers who get paid not by the hour, but by the number of containers they haul. The volume of work will not sustain these leases. Drivers do not want these leases,” Holober said in his letter. “More than being predatory, these leases to drivers who are being forced to buy trucks that should be purchased by the motor carriers they work for are coercive, exploitative and ultimately disastrous for the drivers, your company, and shareholders.”

Daimler Truck Financial was awarded a contract by the port of Long Beach last year to finance its "Clean Trucks Program" and under its terms, Daimler backs the funding for a low-emissions vehicle to any independent port truck driver whose dirty diesel rig is banned by the port, regardless of his/her credit worthiness and ability to pay.

Discounted for volume, though, clean diesel and alternative fuel trucks cost $100,000-$200,000 and Daimler officials publicly told Long Beach officials that the company expects "over 40%" of port drivers to have "high difficulty meeting the payments" – not in the least that port drivers average $11 to $12 an hour, if they are lucky, because they get paid by the number of containers they move.

I wrote about this still-ongoing battle over the clean truck plan espoused by the ports last year – at the heart of which is a series of state government mandates aimed at getting drayage truckers to turn in their old equipment and upgrade to vehicles powered by either 2007-model clean diesel engines or ones using liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The plan aims to cut port-related diesel truck emissions roughly 80% by requiring licensed motor carriers that service the ports to enter into drayage concession agreements that will remove high-polluting trucks from the ports. Under the plan, the port of Long Beach granted five-year renewable concessions to carriers that comply with the CTP guidelines and pay a one-time application fee of $2,500 and fees of $100 per truck annually, the ports said.

There are other requirements, too, such as: committing to using 100% employee drivers by 2013; using trucks for drayage that meet EPA 2007 heavy-duty truck emission standards; ensuring drivers and trucks comply with driver training, vehicle maintenance, inspections and driver hours standards; registering drivers with the drayage truck registry database and ensuring enrollment in the federal Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program; and agreeing to affix radio-frequency identification devices (RFID) to vehicles.

Don’t forget, too, the mandated $35 “clean truck fee” per loaded 20-foot equivalent container (TEU) on any truck entering a terminal in the ports with an engine model year between 1989 and 2006 – a fee collected from the Beneficial Cargo Owner (BCO) by the terminal operator. Trucks made before 1989, however, will NOT be allowed to operate at the ports.

[Notice how there’s a lot of items in the CTP that aren’t directly related to lower emissions? Such as RFID mandates? Interesting how that always seems to happen …]

This is all supposed to save more than it costs, for according to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), pollution from ports contributes to hundreds of premature deaths each year and costs the public between $100 million and $590 million each year in health impact costs.

Indeed, those figures are why Commissioner Joseph Brennan broke with his colleagues on the Federal Maritime Commission earlier this year to support all aspects of this program. From his review of the record, he said, “it is abundantly clear that the enormous, long-term economic, health, and security benefits of the clean trucks program outweigh the projections, by some, of cost increases and service decreases.”

Yet here is the CFC, at the same time about the same program, loudly proclaiming that the mechanisms forcing owner-operators to buy or lease said “cleaner trucks” are in effect destroying them. They simply can’t afford them based on the low wages they receive for hauling containers.

Needless to say, an effort that started out with the goal of reducing pollution has now blown up to include labor issues, economic issues, pay scales, and a host of other gripes well outside the pale of clean air. Frankly, it’s quite a mess – and lord only knows how it’ll get sorted out.

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