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
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.
of 16,000, just across the state line from Kansas City, Mo.,
eventually will be sandwiched between 7 million square feet
of warehouses in the logistics park to the south and 4 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.
Hobby, who’ll 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.”
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 paying 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
bureaucrats, and investors rejoiced in late August when the
Commerce Department announced that U.S. exports in June were
up sharply, $28.8 billion higher than June 2007’s exports.
The Department made less noise about the rising tide of imports,
which were up $26.4 billion.
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.
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,
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.
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 United States. Traffic through
the two ports is expected to triple within 15 years.
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
L.A. 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.
near the world’s ports and coastal sea lanes, emissions from
oceangoing vessels cause 60,000 premature deaths annually,
according to a study released last year by a team of U.S.
and German scientists. With increasing trade, the number of
such deaths is projected to increase 40 percent by 2012. Ships’
crews, dock workers, truckers, other port personnel, and local
residents are all vulnerable.
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.
according to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a
relatively small community of 50,000 people living on the
fringes of the L.A. 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 around nearby rail yards. Within a “several
mile” radius of the ports, estimated CARB, the air pollutants
kill about 75 people per year.
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.
merchandise never sits in one place for long. It’s 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 L.A. in San Bernardino and Riverside
counties, already has seen construction of logistics warehouses
covering 330 million square feet.
a mental picture of the massive extent of roofing and concrete
that requires, imagine 7,300 football fields paved and enclosed.
Similarly vast acreages surrounding the warehouses are paved
as well. And remember, goods traffic in the area could triple
in coming decades.
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
doll, more than likely, arrives at the L.A. or Long Beach
port and rides the BNSF railway to the Elwood, Ill., intermodal
terminal outside Chicago, where it is transferred to a truck.
Once the intermodal facility in Gardner goes into operation,
the doll may end its train journey there and, after a quick
rest in a warehouse, take a truck ride past Claud 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
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.”
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 “NAFTA
superhighway” of Internet legend, 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.
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
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].”
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.
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 L.A.
port has decreed that only drivers who are employees of trucking
firms, not independent contractors, will be allowed to enter
the port. The American Trucking Associations (ATA), which
represents most of the nation’s trucking companies, has sued
to block the new rules.
the ATA is employing in its effort to overturn the Action
Plan is the interstate commerce clause of the United States
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
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.”
clause is having an impact in Gardner as well, 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 Claud 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.
says Jane Anne Morris, author of the book 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.
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 and the Owner-Operator
Independent Drivers Association, are part of a coalition with
NRDC to support the new environmental regulations at the Southern
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.”
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 L.A. and Long Beach
ports are foreign-owned and -flagged. “Ships are under international
control, and that’s the hardest problem to solve,” laments
Protection Agency (EPA) 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.”
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.
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. Halting growth 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
activity, both inbound and outbound, generates profits along
with the 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,
urges 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’s 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.”
Husing, “For a while there I was Public Enemy No. 1 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.”
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 Jessica Lass changes 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.”
too, the debate is over how to deal with the surge of imported
goods, not how to curtail it. Claud 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.”
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.
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.
Cox lives in Salinas, Kan. and is the author of Sick Planet:
Corporate Food and Medicine. This article first appeared
on Alternet.org. Source: Featurewell.com.