By Stephanie M. Lee, October 22, 2013
Trucks pull into the Port of Oakland last month. Some drivers are striking this week.
The truckers' strike at the Port of Oakland stems from complaints over work conditions, but it also underscores a long-simmering tension between the trucking industry and environmental regulators.
Dozens of nonunion truckers walked off the job this week in part to protest what they said were the high costs of retrofitting or replacing trucks to meet air quality standards in California, home to cities with some of the worst air pollution in the country.
The laws were approved five years ago to cut down on diesel emissions from trucks carrying goods into and out of ports and rail yards. Without the controls, diesel trucks and buses coughed out enough smog to form one-third of the state's nitric-oxide emissions and 40 percent of the state's diesel particulate-matter emissions, which have been linked to more than 9,000 premature deaths annually.
Cost of complianceOwners and operators of diesel trucks and buses have had to add soot filters, upgrade to newer engines or replace especially old vehicles. By Jan. 1, California will require all trucks serving its ports to have engines whose model year is 2007 or newer.
Since the regulations were announced, many truckers have been worried about the cost and complications of compliance. Now, a group of nonunion protesters calling itself the Port of Oakland Truckers Association is asking for a yearlong extension of the 2014 deadline. It also wants a monthly $50 "green emissions" fee to help offset the cost of upgrading the trucks.
"If they're going to come out with some rules, they should help us," said Cesar Parra, a group representative. By the port's estimate, about 150 pickets showed up Monday, the first day of the strike, and 100 on Tuesday.
The truckers are also demanding compensation for the currently unpaid hours they spend waiting to pick up cargo and a pay increase per cargo load.
State and local agencies offer grants and loans to help truckers meet the standards, but Parra said the help is insufficient. A state voucher to replace a truck ranges from $10,000 to $45,000, but that net value can be a lot less considering an old truck can receive up to $15,000 on the market, Parra said. Insurance, he said, also costs considerably more for a newer truck.
"They give money, but they put regulations on the money," he said.
The California Trucking Association said the industry invests almost $1 billion annually into complying with the state's air-quality laws. "In an industry where small and family-owned businesses are very common, that burden can be enormous," said Eric Sauer, the group's vice president of policy and regulatory affairs, in a statement.
But port and state officials say truckers have access to lots of financial aid to help them meet the standards.
The Port of Oakland said it, along with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have given $38 million to help truckers comply with deadlines.
As a result, the port says, diesel particulate matter from port trucks has plummeted 88 percent since 2005.
Most of the 5,000 trucks registered at the port are ready for the 2014 deadline, said Marilyn Sandifur, a port spokeswoman. More than 70 percent of the roughly 5,900 trucks registered in Northern California are also already compliant.
Beyond the Bay Area, the state says it has provided more than $500 million in grants, loans, bond money and other funding to truckers to help retrofit or replace old trucks.
More incentivesThe strike is taking place weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB8, which authorizes an additional $2 billion over the next decade in incentives to reduce diesel emissions and support clean alternative fuels and technologies. The state Air Resources Board has estimated that the diesel-emission reduction laws would prevent about 3,500 premature deaths statewide.
Health groups that backed AB8 included the American Lung Association. Bonnie Holmes-Gen, the association's senior director for policy and advocacy in California, said that while it's important to help truck owners comply with the deadline, their health, too, is at stake.
"The bottom line is we need to transition to cleaner fuels and equipment in order to reduce these tremendous health burdens on the area and in order to reach our air quality and greenhouse gas goals," she said. "We have to move forward and make the transition work."