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Port of San Diego Commissioners split on how to prioritize emission-reduction projects

We’re learning more about pollution sources from the Port of San Diego that are affecting people’s health. KPBS Health Reporter Matt Hoffman says the new information has left port commissioners split on how to prioritize emission-reduction projects.

The Port of San Diego’s cargo terminals near National City and Barrio Logan are constantly moving cars, lumber, cement and fresh food.

It is no surprise that an updated health risk assessment puts the two communities ahead of Coronado and downtown for cancer causing diesel emissions.

“I think it’s the trickiest thing that I’ve dealt with since being on the commission — with the most serious implications when you talk about public health,” said Commissioner Rafael Castellanos during a board meeting last week.

The source of the port's pollution are rail operations, ocean vessels, cargo handling equipment and semi-trucks. The noisy big rigs have been the target of complaints for years.

But the updated assessment revealed port trucks actually make up just 8% of the risk in National City and 4% in Barrio Logan.

“What this risk assessment is also telling us is the emphasis on the trucking is much smaller than this commission thought it was,” said Commissioner Frank Urtasun.

Board Chair Dan Malcolm said he hopes that revelation helps the port decide where its spending can have the biggest environmental effect.

“Now that we have some information I think that we need to proceed holistically and strategically and find where we can place dollars in the right place,” Malcolm said.

The port does have a plan to cut emissions. The Maritime Clean Air Strategy (MCAS) outlines reducing emissions from trucks, to boats and cargo haulers. Officials said if the MCAS is followed, the cancer risk for National City, Barrio Logan and Coronado can be cut almost in half by 2030.

But there are concerns about a piece of the plan involving electric trucks.

“My problem is that I think some of the goals in here are really not feasible,” Malcolm said.

The truck transition plan calls for 40% of port truck trips to be electric by 2026 and all of them by 2030. Officials would spend up to $18 million to help carriers transition. But some wonder if it is actually worth it, especially with the port's own data showing its trucks are a much smaller risk than originally thought.

“It is a source of emissions for sure, but where do we get the biggest bang for the buck and where can we have the biggest impact?” Urtasun asked. “Cargo handling equipment.”

Cargo-handling equipment represents the port’s highest cancer risk to Barrio Logan and Coronado. Even so, Commissioner Michael Zucchet said state mandates for transitioning semi-trucks to electric are already coming and it does not hurt to start early, especially when grant money is available.

“If we don't do anything with trucks, the percentage [of emission] contribution is going to go up with trucks,” Zucchet said. “And that’s just math, right?"

Even though the truck transition plan is not a mandate yet, some of the port's biggest tenants and the trucking industry are pushing back.

Truckers argue electric semi’s are expensive and there is not widespread charging infrastructure. Tenants worry that if truckers are required to buy electric trucks, it will no longer be financially feasible for them to pick-up in San Diego anymore.

And Sarah Marsh, a representative of produce giant Dole, worries the company would take a hit.

“All of this has a direct and serious impact to us as a tenant,” Marsh said at a port meeting last week. “If we’re unable to distribute our product from the port, there’s no reason for Dole to call San Diego home.”

Port of San Diego Commissioners split on how to prioritize emission-reduction projects

Marsh said Dole does support the port's environmental goals, but would rather see the agency focus on high-emissions cargo equipment. The company has already electrified a quarter of its cargo fleet.

Commissioner Sandy Naranjo said it is important for everyone to remember what’s at stake.

“This is benefiting the health of our communities who have not had the opportunity to live a healthy and thriving life,” Naranjo said. “Lets not forget that and remember these investments will mean so much to the community and we’re leading.”

Advocates want commissioners to stay the course and stick with the goals outlined in the clean air strategy, including the truck transition plan.

“It doesn’t mean the zero-emission vehicle thing is the end-all-be-all solution but it definitely is a major part of it and it’s an opportunity we have — we can’t let it go,” said Franco Garcia with the Environmental Health Coalition. “What we don't want to end up with here is we’re essentially pushing the can down the road.”

Not all commissioners are onboard with the idea of giving subsidies to buy electric trucks.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to get to that place versus going and purchasing a bunch of electric cargo equipment,” Castellanos said. “Working out a deal with the tenants in that respect seems like a much more straightforward shot to reduce air pollution in our communities.”

The port is already making investments. A new electric tug boat is scheduled to begin operations next year and all electric cranes are set to replace their polluting counterparts. Port officials hope to see significant emissions reductions once that happens.