Port of Tacoma delays are holding up efforts to improve air quality here and in Seattle

The Port of Tacoma will miss a Jan. 1 deadline set a decade ago to clean up air quality at the port and in nearby neighborhoods by requiring newer engines in all trucks that serve its international container terminals.

The program is meant to ensure that only trucks with a 2007 engine or newer are allowed to enter the port’s international terminals. Trucks with engines older than that would be barred entry.

Missing the deadline has serious consequences for the environment and for the trucking industry and many companies that spent years preparing for the deadline by updating their fleets, according to environmental advocates and those in the trucking business.

Health advocates say if the deadline is missed, it will have immediate health implications for people who live and work around the port. Fine particulate matter that spews from older, dirtier trucks has been directly linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke, and not just in vulnerable people, like the elderly. Exposure can also lead to lung disease and asthma, said Craig Kenworthy, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

About half the trucking industry that serves the ports of Tacoma and Seattle has cause to be upset.

They invested in trucks with newer engines and now are at a competitive disadvantage. Many needed to raise rates to make up for the investment, but since the deadline was pushed back, they’ll be competing with drivers who haven’t bought new trucks and whose costs aren’t as high.

“The bottom line is Seattle is ready, they’ve been ready for this for a long time and they’re ready to go,” said Ian Collins, president of Premier Transport and current president of the Washington Truckers Association intermodal conference, the group that drives short-haul trips and serve the ports. “The Port of Tacoma dropped the ball. So that’s the issue, so now we have this mess.”

While the Port of Seattle has the radio frequency-identification technology already in place at its terminals, which would allow it to turn older trucks away, the Port of Tacoma doesn’t have authorization to purchase that technology yet.

The technology works similarly to the security badges many people use to get into a secured workplace.

Seattle also has provisions in its leases requiring newer truck engines. Tacoma still needs to open up and renegotiate leases with four terminal operators to add that requirement.

The forming of the Northwest Seaport Alliance two years ago as a partnership between the ports of Seattle and Tacoma also complicated matters, said CEO John Wolfe.

Wolfe recently gave several reasons — including the high cost to buy new trucks — why Tacoma would be unable to meet the deadline, resulting in the clean-truck requirement being pushed back at both ports. The fact that only half the trucks at both ports have converted is a major one, he said.

“I would just say this is complicated by the balancing of business interests with environmental stewardship and the social and political implications of such a program, so it is complex in nature,” Wolfe told the commissioners of both ports at a November meeting.

He acknowledged the Seaport Alliance didn’t move fast enough to make sure the deadline was met.

“I would say one thing that emerged for me is I wish I would have jumped in with both feet about a year earlier to really clearly understand all the particulars of this issue, yet I was leaning on staff that was managing this and didn’t probably pay as much attention personally as the leader of this organization to this stated goal,” Wolfe said.

Origins of the deadline

The so-called Clean Truck Program deadline has been in place for a decade, agreed to by the ports of Tacoma, Seattle and Vancouver years before Seattle and Tacoma merged into the Northwest Seaport Alliance. It was a self-imposed goal to demonstrate that the ports are doing their part to improve air quality for their neighbors, which especially near Seattle’s port tend to have lower incomes.

Seattle’s Duwamish Valley, which is a neighbor to the port, is home to some of the city’s most ethnically diverse and lowest-income neighborhoods, according to a staff memo from the Seaport Alliance. Citing data from the City of Seattle and the King County Department of Public Health, the alliance said residents in that area are more likely to live in poverty, be foreign-born, have no health insurance and no bachelor’s degree. According to data cited from the EPA, that area has much higher childhood asthma hospitalization rates than the rest of King County.

The 2007 engine year standard was chosen because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed emission standards for heavy-duty trucks that year. The 2007 standard removes 85 to 90 percent more diesel particulate matter compared to trucks built before 1994, which was the last time the standard was changed.

The three ports agreed that by Jan. 1, 2018, trucks serving their international terminals would have 2007 engines or newer.

Despite work in that direction, especially in Seattle, only 52 percent of the roughly 4,500 trucks that serve the ports have been converted to the newer engines. If the ports were to enforce the Jan. 1 deadline, there wouldn’t be enough trucks available to unload all the freight from the ships and send it off to its destinations on time, the Seaport Alliance and trucking companies have said.

Health impacts

When the Seaport Alliance announced two months before the deadline was set to take effect that it would be pushed back, environmental advocates and neighbors of the ports were incensed. Dirty, polluting trucks that rumble around port roads and near residential neighborhoods directly affect air quality, spewing fine particulate matter into the air that increases the risk of heart attack and stroke for people who breathe it in, according to Kenworthy of the clean air agency.

“This has serious public health effects, and I did tell them we and their staff estimate if they go one year past the original deadline that we will end up with 65 tons of excess particulate matter pollution,” Kenworthy said in a phone interview. “To give a sense of that, we estimated that that is the equivalent of the emissions over the course of an average year for 2,700 wood stoves.”

One of the concerns about this kind of fine-particulate matter is that it’s so small, it can pass into the blood stream.

“There is no safe threshold for particulate pollution, it’s not a safe thing to breathe, no matter how low the levels are,” he said.

Older people and sick people are particularly vulnerable to this kind of pollution, Kenworthy said.

“This could push them past the point of having an attack, or having another issue.”

Financial impacts

There are financial concerns for the many truckers and companies who do business at the ports.

Those who spent between $30,000 and $80,000 on each new clean-air truck find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. They’d been told for years that only newer trucks would be allowed through the gates at international terminals after Jan. 1, and, since presumably everyone had invested in new trucks, raising rates to help offset that investment would have made business sense.

Now, they’re stuck competing with independent drivers in older trucks who haven’t shelled out for that cost and can undercut them on rates, said Julie Roberts, president of Freight Expediters Inc., which bought 16 Freightliner trucks that were model year 2012 or newer in anticipation of the deadline.

All together, Roberts said the company, which she runs with her husband, spent $1.2 million to purchase the new trucks with warranties.

“We are doing it right, and we are paying a big price for doing it right right now,” she said.

Other trucking companies said they were aware of this deadline, but still, only about half the trucks that serve the ports have been converted.

Ports can’t force drivers to upgrade and buy new trucks. All they can do is turn them away if they don’t have the newer engines.

According to the Seaport Alliance memo, about 80 percent of the drivers that serve the ports are independent owner-operators who own their trucks and drive for larger fleets. Many can’t front the expense of buying a new truck, or don’t have the credit or assets to leverage a loan.

Also according to the seaport alliance, the local pool of short-haul truck owner-operators and drivers are predominantly immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, and many are low-income. Driving a truck for a living comes with thin profit margins and long hours, and there were serious concerns among port commissioners about putting those drivers out of business.

“Certainly on this clean-truck issue … you can find any range of people who aren’t happy with where we’re at and that includes people who want the goal to go out further by several years and others who want to ensure we hold the goal at the end of this year,” said Kurt Beckett, deputy CEO of the Seaport Alliance. “The challenge in the drayage fleet has many facets to it, but essentially at port complexes across the country, the general goal within truck programs was to get 1994 or older trucks off the road because they are much more consequential in terms of emissions.”

Idling in hours-long lines to get into the port already has forced several independent drivers who contracted with Freight Expediters to call it quits, Roberts said.

“They’re forcing us to buy new trucks and us to pay for it, and the new trucks are very expensive,” said Thad Josephsen, an independent driver from Vaughn. “Because of the complicated emissions system, they break down and cost a lot of money to repair. … It’s going to put me out of business. I’m just going to sell this truck.”

What happens next

The Seaport Alliance managing members, which include the commissioners from both ports, are expected to vote at an upcoming meeting on pushing the deadline out. A new goal of Jan. 1, 2019 has been floated, with potential benchmarks between now and then of renegotiating leases with the international-terminal operators and banning all pre-2001 trucks by mid-year.

In the meantime, Roberts and others who have already converted their trucks are hoping for some sort of benefit or incentive — maybe a fast lane for clean trucks so they can cut the long lines and access the terminals more quickly.

“I get you can’t have 50 percent of truckers gone,” she said. “My feeling as a truck owner who’s been compliant is that I should get get some sort of concession.”

To help get more clean trucks on the road, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency offered a grant program that scrapped 410 older trucks and offered a big chunk of money to go toward buying a new truck.

The Northwest Seaport Alliance said the ports of Seattle and Tacoma along with the alliance have invested more than $15 million in helping spur conversion to newer trucks. But that hasn’t been enough, and now they’re seeking a change to state law that will allow the port to offer market-rate loans to truckers with low or no credit who haven’t converted to newer trucks because of the expense.

While this deadline only applies to the seven international terminals managed by the Seaport Alliance, a spokeswoman said by email they’re thinking of including the three domestic terminals in the future.

“The net result is still we’re behind the eight-ball, but there is no shortage of commitment to fixing it,” said Fred Felleman, a Port of Seattle commissioner who has routinely taken a lead on environmental issues. “But at the same time it’s understandable that trucking companies who did convert are annoyed with us.”

Staff photographer Drew Perine contributed to this report.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud