Tale of Two Ports: What’s Wrong with LA


This story was updated to correct an error on the part of staff transcribing Mr. Pulido’s columns.

By Ricardo Pulido, Executive Director of Community Dreams

This is the story of two ports with very different approaches in addressing the largest pollution problem in our basin: the large ocean going cargo vessels.

I have long been a critic of the Port of Los Angeles due to it being a significant source of industrial pollution and it having negative impacts on the surrounding Harbor Area communities. For the port, it seems that asthma, cardiovascular disease and death is just the cost of doing business.

But it doesn’t need to be.

I am, however, encouraged by the city’s and the Port of Long Beach’s efforts to mitigate these costs.

But the Port of Los Angeles continues to be mired in city hall insider politics with an ingrained pay-to-play mentality.

The Los Angeles Harbor Commission and Port’s executive director, Gene Seroka, point to the previous administration for any lack of transparency and blame them for the legal settlement violations of the China Shipping lawsuit and compliance violations from the TraPac environmental impact report.

But from an environmental justice perspective, opaque business practices is an enduring trait that remains part and parcel of the port today. Improper port behavior was initially identified by former Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick, after conducting an audit of the port in 2003.

She said in her audit at the time that, “Though the port asserts it operates like a big business, it seems to be more like the back room than the boardroom.”

Chick performed follow up audits in 2005 and 2008. In the 2008 audit, she reportedly said that, “the Port of Los Angeles does not provide sufficient oversight of its multi-million-dollar contracts, leading to cost overruns and creating an environment for potential abuses and conflicts of interest.”

Almost eight years later, and 13 years after identifying these management problems at the Port of Los Angeles, the same activity lives on. The recent disclosure that the port failed to fulfill its reporting obligations under China Shipping lawsuit is a reflection of its arrogance and general attitude that it’s “above the law.”

That same arrogance was reflected when it was revealed that the port rolled back pollution reduction measures for China Shipping and TraPac terminals in violation of the Clean Air Action Plan’s memorandum of understanding.

The Port and the City of Long Beach, however, appears to be focused on finding the best available technology — a clear demonstration of its commitment.

I attended a Harbor Commission meeting two years ago at which the firm Advanced Cleanup Technologies, Inc. was awarded a $2.1 million contract to test their vessel emission control technology, called the Advanced Maritime Emission Control System on large ocean-going vessels. After 2,000 hours of testing on a number of vessels of all types and sizes, Advanced Cleanup Technologies Inc. gained the California Air Resources Board approval for their system.

The award followed the port’s request for proposals, after which it received applications from more than 50 different vendors. It was an open and transparent selection process.

Recently, in his State of the Port presentation, Port of Long Beach executive director, Jon Slangerup, promised to expand use of the Advanced Maritime Emission Control Systems at the port, earning praise from the environmental justice community.

The Port of Los Angeles, in contrast, has been far less concerned about deploying the “best” emissions capture technology available and more concerned about lining the pockets of an ex-Harbor Commission president, Nick Tonsich. He is also a significant donor to city electeds.

Tonsich was no friend of previous Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Particularly after the former mayor called for a criminal investigation of Tonsich during his term as harbor commissioner. In the years since, Tonsich seems to have curried favor with current Mayor Eric Garcetti. Tonsich even throws numerous fundraisers for him.

He also seems to have control of port staff and some of the mayor’s commissioners with the help of Deputy Executive Director and ex-Mayor James Hahn crony, Doane Liu. He was appointed by Garcetti to run the port’s day-to-day operations.

Tonsich is the principal of Clean Air Engineering-Maritime, a company he founded after he left the Los Angeles Harbor Commission. Clean Air Engineering, with Tri-Mer Corp., was awarded a $1.5 million grant to develop a full-scale commercial model of the Maritime Emissions Treatment System without any formal bid or evaluation process. There was no open request for proposals, no testing protocol with the South Coast Air Quality Management District. There was no presentation and neither the owner nor company had a resume of environmental work in this area.

The grant Clean Air Engineering actually received was originally designated for Advanced Maritime Emission Control Systems technology before Clean Air Engineering was formed and Tonsich, lobbied them away from the POLA. And, remember Tonsich, Clean Air Engineering system was found to be less effective in the open Port of Long Beach’s vetting process.

The Clean Air Engineering system was approved to handle smaller vessels than Advanced Maritime Emission Control Systems. The Clean Air Engineering system takes longer to connect to a ship than does the advanced Maritime Emission Control Systems. It was also never tested at shore-side or anchor-like Advanced Maritime Emission Control Systems and generates liquid waste stream that requires disposal unlike Advanced Maritime Emission Control Systems.

The Clean Air Engineering system also does nothing to address sulfur oxide pollutants. Sulfur oxide is a major criteria pollutant that has proven to be controlled by using the Advanced Maritime Emission Control Systems technology.

Chick’s 2008 audit stated, “contracts related to environmental programs were awarded to companies on an as-needed basis without competition.”

Interestingly, Tonsich also operates a crane maintenance company that works only with tenants at the Port of Los Angeles, with which he negotiated leases when he was a port commissioner.

I have spoken in support of Advanced Maritime Emission Control Systems many times, and I have serious concerns with POLA’s dealings with Tonsich at the Dec.15, 2015 meeting. At the meeting, Seroka said the port had, “no contractual relationship (with Mr. Tonsich).”

But this was far from the truth. The ex-Harbor Commission president purchased and/or leased a $4 million building from the port that has generated a significant revenue stream every month. Also, his company, Clean Air Engineering, is working at the TraPac terminal while using the port’s $1.5 million grant to build his system.

Additionally, in what appears again to be a no-bid backroom deal, the port recently applied for a $12 million California Air Resources Board’s Multi-Source Cap and Trade grant to develop a Green Omni Terminal at Pasha Terminal. The grant was intended to test zero and near-zero emission technologies to encourage sustainable goods movement. The test would only use Tonsich’s Clean Air Engineering products. In exchange, Pasha is to provide 25 percent of the matching funds while the Harbor Department provides in-kind services — primarily staff time.

Former City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission submitted letters warning of the conflict of interest, but the Port of Los Angeles and Garcetti’s appointed commissioners and executives continue to allow this to happen. In fact, the Port of Los Angeles continues to deflect, mislead or simply lie about its standing relationship with Tonsich.

Port Environmental Director Chris Cannon said during the commission meeting that “it was up to the terminal, who they do business with, not the port.” This, of course, is false. As the landlord, the port can make environmental restrictions, request and mandates in its leases like best available technology.

POLA was the grant applicant for the Air Resources Board approval, not the terminal. If one system is better for the community or will save more lives, it should matter.

Again, the port applied for this grant and included the ex-commissioner’s company without any actual testing of a shore side system. At a January Harbor Commissioners board meeting, board president, Ambassador Vilma S. Martinez, requested a report on Tonsich regarding the concerns and accusation raised by community members. Almost four months later, there’s still no report.

It was reported in the Los Angeles Times recently (March 24, 2016), that the port wasted more than $5 million of public trust money to retrofit China Shipping’s cargo vessels so that they could connect to the electric grid while the engines are off — a process known as “cold ironing.” Shamelessly and irresponsibly, those ships have not visited the Port of Los Angeles in more than five years. One Advanced Maritime Emission Control Systems unit for about the same cost would have brought it to 100 percent vessel compliance.

This was a highly unfavorable and highly suspicious agreement that committed the Port of Los Angeles to pay more than $50 million to make good on the environmental mitigations at the China Shipping terminal. Tonsich and his board of commissioners approved that agreement and was the subject of Chick’s audit. Apparently, none of these merited the concern of the current port management except Martinez, who cannot get any answer from staff — at least in public.

Large ocean going vessels such as break bulk and liquid bulk container ships and cruise ships together is the largest source of cancer-causing air pollution in the Harbor Area.

Cold ironing only addresses about half of the 4,000 large vessels that call at the Los Angeles and Long Beach port complexes, and only addresses 60 to 90 percent of the emissions from those ships. Ship-exhaust-emission-capture technology, such as Advanced Maritime Emission Control Systems, is a much more effective way to handle cancer-causing vessel emissions. The technology can capture 98 percent — not 60, 70, 80 or 90 percent — of the most cancerous pollutants. This technology is applicable to almost 100 percent — not 50 percent — of the large vessels that call at ALL ports, without the infrastructure cost of cold ironing. This technology is available today.

The Port of Long Beach already has publicly announced its commitment to Advanced Maritime Emission Control Systems and to cleaner air. The city and the Port of Los Angeles have demonstrated that they are more interested in improving the lives of the politically connected, while leaving Harbor Area citizens to cough, wheeze, choke and ultimately, die from vessel emissions.

As incidences of various cancers, and lung and heart disease in our region increase, it is critical for us to stand together and fight for the right to clean air and a healthy environment. The ports are the largest polluters. They don’t have to be.

Sixteen cargo container ships emit the equivalent pollution of one million cars. There is no excuse for not using the highest and the best technology available to reduce the toxins in the air that we breathe. We all must join in a single voice to ensure that the Port of Los Angeles meets this simple request. We deserve the best technology available. We don’t care who owns the company, and neither should the Port or the Mayor of Los Angeles.



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