Boatloads of Trouble: How We Are Importing Our Way to Destruction

As part of our look at the year in review, AlterNet is "resurfacing" its best and most popular pieces of 2008.

Nineteen hundred miles of railroad track separate Gardner, Kan., from the seaports of Southern California. But through the miracle of global trade, Gardner will soon be transformed into a Los Angeles suburb.

Over the next decade, an "intermodal and logistics park" will be built on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway at the southern edge of Gardner. It's needed to handle goods imported from Asia via the Los Angeles and Long Beach seaports. Gardner could eventually find itself playing host to as many as 30 freight trains per day, each a mile and a half long, along with thousands of big-rig trucks.

The community of 16,000, just across the state line from Kansas City, Mo., will eventually be sandwiched between 7 million square feet of warehouses in the logistics park to the south and 4 million to 5 million square feet in an industrial park to the north. The total warehouse floor space easily exceeds that of all the housing in Gardner.

And Claud Hobby, who will be living about three-fourths of a mile from the new facility, can already feel the burn of diesel fumes in his nostrils. The pollution will be growing thicker over his neighborhood with each passing year, but he's trying to keep his sense of humor. He says, "They talk about making Kansas a smoke-free state, but it looks like Gardner's going to be the designated smoking section."

With environmentalists devoting most of their efforts in recent years to sounding the alarm on global climate change, local pollution isn't always getting the attention it deserves. But if you share your neighborhood with the sprawling -- and growing -- infrastructure that moves imported goods from seaports to retailers, you can't help but pay attention. You don't need to be reminded that air pollutants, even when they're not warming the planet, can threaten your health and even your life.

Along the cancer trail

Economists, bureaucrats and investors rejoiced late last month when the Commerce Department announced that U.S. exports in June were up sharply, $28.8 billion higher than in June 2007. The department made less noise about the rising tide of imports, which were up $26.4 billion.

Leaving aside that portion of the increased import bill that was due to rising oil prices, the nation's seaports, airports, railways and highways were still faced with moving an additional $40 billion worth of stuff in and out across our borders, on top of the $330 billion worth of stuff that's already going in and out each month.

Imports -- mostly consumer and industrial goods, not oil -- continue to dominate over exports in America's trade equation. Hunger for imports keeps rising, and the nation's capacity to manufacture those products keeps shrinking. So hauling, sorting and delivering foreign-made goods has evolved into a fast-growing, high-tech, high-profit industry.

The American Association of Port Authorities says the nation's seaports are now handling 1.4 billion tons of goods annually and that waterborne container traffic will double by 2020. These days, as every shopper knows, a big share of that traffic is coming across the Pacific from Asia.

Seattle and Oakland handle some of those Asian goods, but most enter the United States through the twin seaports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Together, they comprise the third-largest container-handling facility in the world, receiving 40 percent of all imports entering the country. Traffic through the two ports is expected to triple within 15 years.

At those cargo bottlenecks where ships, trains and trucks converge, the air can kill you. Oceangoing ships burn the lowest of low-quality diesel oil, and the fuel used by locomotives isn't much better. Trucks burn a greater quantity of fuel per ton hauled, with correspondingly high emissions.

According to Los Angeles and Long Beach authorities, the movement of cargo through their ports was responsible in 2005 for emissions laden with 6,000 tons of particle matter -- soot, smoke, dust, organic matter and other microscopic flecks that can invade deep into the lungs -- and more than 46,000 tons of nitrogen and sulfur oxides.

In and near the world's ports and coastal sea lanes, emissions from oceangoing vessels caused 60,000 premature deaths in 2002. With increasing trade, the number of such deaths is projected to rise 40 percent by 2012. Ships' crews, dock workers, truckers, other port personnel and local residents are all vulnerable.

The particulate matter produced by burning diesel has been associated with lung cancer, asthma, chronic bronchitis, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, decreased lung function in children and infant mortality.

Currently, according to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a relatively small community of 50,000 people living on the fringes of the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports suffers 25 new cases of cancer each year because of diesel pollution from ships, trucks and dock equipment. Similar cancer risks were found for people living near rail yards. Within a "several mile" radius of the ports, estimates CARB, the air pollutants kill about 75 people per year.

The great indoors

Given the rate at which shiploads, trainloads, truckloads and planeloads of goods have been arriving from abroad in the past eight months, 2008 is on track to set an all-time record for imports, topping $2 trillion for the first time. (Not counting oil, imports will amount to more than $1.8 trillion, also a record). Clearly, recent economic pain and soaring diesel fuel prices have not diminished Americans' appetite for imported merchandise.

That merchandise never sits in one place for long. It is moved out of the ports, sorted at sophisticated warehouse complexes known as "logistics facilities," and distributed throughout the country as quickly as possible. In recent years, California's Inland Empire, lying east of Los Angeles in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, has already seen construction of logistics warehouses covering 330 million square feet.

To get a mental picture of the massive extent of roofing and concrete that requires, imagine 7,300 football fields paved and enclosed (or have a look at these images.) Similarly vast acreages surrounding the warehouses are paved as well. And remember, goods traffic in the area could triple in coming decades.

In a 2006 commentary, Andrea Hricko, associate professor at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, cited an example of a doll, made in an Asian sweatshop and destined to sell for $9.97 at one of Chicago's big-box discount stores. By the time the doll reaches Chicago, notes Hricko, "she has traveled more than 8,000 miles -- on diesel-burning conveyances the whole way." And she will have left a dark trail of pollution in the ports and communities she passed through.

Hricko's doll, more than likely, arrives at the Los Angeles or Long Beach port and rides the Burlington Northern railway to the Elwood, Ill., intermodal terminal outside Chicago, where it is transferred to a truck. Once the intermodal facility in Gardner, Kan., goes into operation, the doll may end its train journey there and, after a quick rest in a warehouse, take a truck ride past Hobby's house on its way to Wal-Mart somewhere in the nation's midsection. From there, it will land in a child's bedroom for a while before going to the basement or garage and, eventually, a landfill.

Hobby visited Elwood last year to get a glimpse of his own future, and it wasn't pleasant: "With so many trucks in the area, they had three police officers on the roads directing traffic, and it still took me 30 minutes to drive one mile."

With a rising tide of imports from China and other countries choking the ports of Southern California and the roads around Chicago, the goods-transport system is looking for alternate routes, and Mexico stands ready to help. In contrast to the mythical "NAFTA superhighway," the rail lines from Mexico are very real, and they're humming. Month by month, more Asian goods are making landfall at the port of Lazaro Cardenas on southern Mexico's Pacific coast and riding the Kansas City Southern railway northeast for 2,200 miles.

To unload merchandise at the other end, the railway and its corporate partners will be developing yet another intermodal hub, south of Kansas City and east of Gardner. It will have the potential for 23 million square feet of warehouse space on its 970 acres of land.

The Kansas City Star reported in March that the developments at the intermodal hub are "all part of the railroad's strategy to encourage companies and ocean carriers to ship goods from Asia to Lazaro Cardenas and on into the United States." According to a transportation analyst quoted by the paper, "More than two-thirds of intermodal shipments are consumer goods. They (Kansas City Southern) have to convince the Wal-Marts, the J.C. Penneys and Home Depots to use the Mexico-U.S. corridor. ... The longer the haul, the better the margins and the greater the revenues (for the railway)."

Constitutional chicanery

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have announced a "Clean Air Action Plan," characterized as "the most comprehensive strategy to cut air pollution and reduce health risks ever produced for a global seaport complex." The goal is to reduce emissions of diesel pollutants by almost 50 percent in five years.

As part of the program, starting Oct. 1, trucks entering either of two big Southern California ports will have to comply with new rules on emissions and safety, and older trucks with poorer pollution controls will be banned. On top of that, the Los Angeles port has decreed that only drivers who are employees of trucking firms, not independent contractors, will be allowed to enter the port. American Trucking Associations (ATA), which represents most of the nation's trucking companies, has sued to block the new rules.

The lever the ATA is employing in its effort to overturn the Clean Air Action Plan is the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. That clause, it is claimed, prohibits states and localities from interfering with interstate trade. Economist John Husing of Redlands, Calif., who has done analyses of the region's goods-transport industry under contracts with the ports and the Southern California Association of Governments, believes that the industry's constitutional argument will succeed.

Says Husing: "The trucking companies don't want every Podunk city in America to be able to say, 'You can't drive through our town,' and the courts will agree."

The commerce clause is also having an impact in Gardner, Kan., where a city clean-air ordinance prohibits truck drivers from letting their engines idle for more than 10 minutes. "But that's just window dressing," says Hobby. "We can't do anything about trucks on railroad property (in the intermodal park)." There, the commerce clause rules, and Gardner residents will just have to live with the drifting smog.

Nevertheless, says Jane Anne Morris, author of "Gaveling Down the Rabble: How Free Trade is Stealing Our Democracy," it is important to challenge all attempts by corporations and the federal courts to use the clause as a weapon against environmentally essential laws. "We would not have the problems we have now if thousands of good, promising, strong laws had not been declared unconstitutional under the commerce clause since 1879," she says.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), with headquarters in Washington, D.C., and an office in Los Angeles, has filed a "motion to intervene" in opposition to ATA's lawsuit. Other groups, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, have joined NRDC in supporting the new environmental regulations at the Southern California ports.

NRDC spokesperson Jessica Lass makes the case this way: "We support the plan because more management oversight is needed at the ports, to improve efficiency. Trucks need to be fully loaded, to minimize the number of trips in and out. And we need to be sure they are fuel-efficient and well maintained."

Controlling pollution from oceangoing ships will be even more difficult than regulating trucks. Ninety percent of the bunker-fuel-burning, fume-belching vessels coming into the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are foreign-owned and -flagged. "Ships are under international control, and that's the hardest problem to solve," laments Husing.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a voluntary program under which some ships will use better grades of fuel in their auxiliary engines (which they switch to when they're in and around ports), reduce their speed near ports, and plug into shore-based power sources when at dock. NRDC hails the program as a step forward, but Husing doesn't see it going very far: "We regard EPA as useless. What they are doing is lame at best."

The purchase-driven life

The sheer volume of imports, growing by the day, threatens to overwhelm all attempts to clean up the environment along trade routes. The value of goods being imported nationwide has risen 68 percent just in the past decade; that's after adjustments for inflation, and it excludes oil imports.

Halting that growth or even making deep cuts in imports would not only help clear the air, it would make it easier to clean up the toxic water pollution that accumulates in sea lanes and ports; it would curb the noise pollution that can do serious damage to human health and interfere with communications among marine mammals; and it would stop the headlong rush to pave more land for logistics parks.

Slashing imports would address those and a host of other environmental and human-rights problems created by overproduction and overconsumption. But with an increasingly fragile economy that depends so heavily on consumer spending, politicians and economists continue to call for more trade, not less.

That's certainly the case on the 2008 campaign trail. The presidential candidates express concern over imports only when urging "independence from foreign oil." Republican John McCain, a committed free-trader, saluted June's strong trade report, saying that it "provided an important reminder of the role that exports play in our economy."

Democratic candidate Barack Obama's campaign Web site says, "Obama believes that trade with foreign nations should strengthen the American economy and create more American jobs." In practice, he appears to vacillate between advocating mild trade regulations (for which critics repeatedly brand him as a "protectionist") and flirting with "strong dollar" policies that would bring in even higher volumes of imports.

Some of the flow through our ports seems almost circular -- trade for the sake of trade. In some of the categories that the U.S. Census Bureau uses to tally trade, such as "pleasure boats and motors," "toiletries and cosmetics" and "medicinal equipment," the dollar values of goods coming in and going out are strikingly similar.

All that activity, both inbound and outbound, generates profits along with pollution. As a consequence, no one on either side of the battle over pollution control around ports, roads and railways seems to be urging a rollback of imports.

Husing, in his economic analysis of goods traffic in California, urged aggressive expansion of the industry as the only viable job-creation strategy. He explains, "In this region, 44 percent of the population has a high school education or less. People need blue-collar jobs without barriers to entry. Manufacturing is in decline. Construction is in the toilet. But logistics and distribution is growing fast. With tracking technology, it's an information-intensive sector and pays at least as well as manufacturing, better than construction."

Says Husing, "For a while there I was Public Enemy Number One in the environmental movement's eyes. They are concerned about people's health. I argued that poverty is a public health issue, and they didn't like that. But they seem to be coming around."

On the issue of ports and distribution centers, environmentalists are focusing on pollution control, while assuming that consumption of imported goods will continue to grow. Asked if the root of the problem is simply that we're importing too much stuff, NRDC's Lass changed the subject back to efficiency: "We don't want to stand in the way of progress. We need a way to expand our ports in an environmentally sustainable manner and create more jobs."

In Kansas, too, the debate is over how to deal with the surge of imported goods, not how to curtail it. Hobby says that the Burlington Northern facility should be built in an area 14 miles farther south of Gardner, where there's plenty of open land: "We've had this thing thrown into our backyard. Instead, they should put it where growth can move toward it. Then any people or companies who don't mind being near this thing can buy land and move in around it."

A deep recession or depression could disrupt the "purchase-driven life" that fuels the American economy. Until then, it appears, the quest for more efficient methods of importing ever-greater tonnages will continue.

A clean-running economy that can thrive on less production and less importation of consumer goods would look very different from today's economy. It may be out there somewhere in the future, but it's hard to see through the clouds of diesel exhaust.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.