US Ports Poorly Address Environmental Justice Concerns

US Ports Poorly Address Environmental Justice Concerns

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by Katie Chicojay-Moore, Oceans and Vessels Fellow

Air pollution from large container ports has been a historically neglected environmental justice issue. Near-port communities tend to be communities of color, low-income, or otherwise disadvantaged and are disproportionately exposed to pollutants. While there have been significant efforts to reduce emissions from the transportation sector, efforts to reduce emissions at ports have been slow and far behind other industries. However, as the harms of environmental injustices are increasingly recognized, port emissions have received heightened focus.  

Port operations release high amounts of climate change-causing greenhouse gases (GHGs), as well as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are known to have negative human health impacts, among other pollutants. Particulate matter is the mixture of small airborne particles, such as dust, soot, and liquid droplets. Both coarse particulate matter (PM10) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are known to cause respiratory health problems and can lead to premature death.1 Fine particulate matter accounts for between 85,000 and 200,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year2 and a recent scientific study found that people of color are exposed to disproportionately high levels of PM2.5 from nearly all major emissions sources.  

2020 study conducted in Newark, NJ  found that communities located adjacent to ports, high-density truck and bus routes, and related infrastructure experience higher levels of diesel truck traffic as well as higher pollutant exposure, exacerbating health concerns. The study found that non-roadway sources, particularly ports, were the dominant contributor of PM2.5 emissions; port operations and rail yards were responsible for around 85% of PM2.5 and black carbon exposure.  

Reducing emissions from roadway sources (e.g., trucks) could meaningfully reduce exposure to pollutants in the study areas near roadways, but when assessed across the entire study area, focusing on roadway emissions would only reduce emissions exposure by one to two percent, due to the magnitude of port and rail yard emissions exposure. This study demonstrates the outsized impact ports have on local air pollution and near-port communities, but efforts can be taken to reduce port air emissions and create a cleaner environment for near-port communities, while also mitigating the impacts of GHGs and climate change.  

Expanding the use of renewable energy and moving toward electrification of port operations are  making inroads at ports across the country. Yet air emission reduction efforts at the top ten container ports in the US (by TEU) vary significantly. Of the top ten U.S. container ports, eastern and southern ports tend to be far behind those on the west coast, with the Port of New York and New Jersey as a possible exception. Lagging ports can look to the west coast ports as examples for emissions reductions they could achieve through implementing renewable and electrification initiatives.  

The first step in understanding port emissions is conducting an emissions inventory at regular intervals. An emissions inventory is a comprehensive assessment of air emissions of pollutants and their sources, which can be used to understand baseline emissions and track progress over time. For example, the Port of Los Angeles (LA) conducts an annual emissions inventory that tracks emissions of eight pollutants (e.g. PM10PM2.5, NOx, etc.) from five different port sources (ocean-going vessels, harbor craft, cargo handling equipment, locomotives, and heavy-duty vehicles).  

The Port of LA has conducted annual emissions inventories since 2005. In 2019, the most recent inventory available, the Port had reduced PM2.5 emissions 86% from 2005 levels across all sources. Of the top ten U.S. container ports, only the Port of Savannah has not completed an emissions inventory in the past 10 years or have a plan to complete one in the future.  

With an emissions inventory to understand port air emissions, ports can then create long-term goals to reduce emissions. The Northwest Ports Clean Air Strategy (Strategy) lays out a vision for four Northwest port entities to phase out emissions from seaport-related activities by 2050.  

The Strategy was first adopted in 2008, and progress is documented annually. In 2016, the four port entities had collectively reached their 2020 emissions targets, significantly reducing their port-related air pollution since the baseline year of 2005. While only one of the top ten container ports does not have a recent or ongoing emissions inventory, the Port of Virginia, the South Carolina Ports Authority, and the Georgia Ports Authority all lack a long-term strategic plan for emissions reductions. 

The combined efforts of an air emissions inventory and a long-term strategic plan for emissions reductions have led to west coast ports notably reducing their port-related air pollution. With or without an emissions inventory or a long-term plan, there are several measures ports can carry out to achieve reductions in air emissions 

Clean Trucks 

Replacing old, inefficient diesel trucks with newer, cleaner trucks is one way to reduce diesel emissions. Drayage trucks, trucks that transport containers and bulk freight between the port and other near-port facilities, are of particular concern. These trucks can have major impacts on nearby communities, particularly through the use of residential streets.  

In 2008, as part of the San Pedro Bay Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP), the Ports of LA and Long Beach launched a Clean Truck Program to phase out the oldest, dirtiest trucks serving port terminals by banning trucks older than 2007 engine model year. The 2016 emissions inventories for the ports showed that truck-related diesel particulate matter emissions had decreased 97% since 2005, and to date the Clean Truck Program has reduced air pollution from harbor trucks by more than 90%. Of the top ten U.S. container ports, all but Jacksonville (JAXPORT) have implemented some form of clean truck incentive program or have utilized federal grant funding to purchase cleaner trucks. 

Vessel Shore Power 

Vessel shore power is the ability for marine vessels to plug into the local electricity grid while at berth, allowing ships to turn off their auxiliary diesel engines. According to the NWSA, “for a ship that is at the dock for 40 hours, [shore power] avoids burning about ten metric tons of marine gas oil (diesel fuel for ships) and avoids emitting about 32 tons of CO2 and 22 pounds of diesel particulate matter.”  

The TOTE Terminal in Tacoma, WA has had shore power installed since 2010, and the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma have been expanding their shore power capabilities with a goal of 100% of their major cruise and container berths to have shore power installed by 2030. While shore power can achieve beneficial emissions reductions, it requires landside infrastructure for vessels to connect to the local electric grid as well as shipside power modifications. Only five of the top ten U.S. container ports currently have shore power capabilities. 

Electrification of port infrastructure 

Ports can also move toward electrification of infrastructure such as cargo handling equipment. Cargo handling equipment is any motorized equipment used for routine maintenance and function of port activities (e.g., rubber-tired gantry cranes (RTGs), container handlers, terminal tractors). The Port of Long Beach has received $80 million in total grant funding for six projects to demonstrate zero emissions equipment and advanced energy systems in port operations. One of these projects includes 12 battery-electric yard tractors and nine fully electric RTGs, the nation’s largest deployment of fully electric RTGs at a single terminal; RTGs make up only 5% of the terminal fleet, but account for up to 20% of equipment emissions. While these types of equipment may not be numerous or top of mind when thinking about port emissions, electrification of these operations can lead to notable emissions reductions. 

Supporting renewable energy on-site

Although not directly related to port equipment operations, ports can support renewable energy through installation of renewable energy infrastructure on-site. For example, the Port of Seattle has installed four solar arrays on port properties, demonstrating the port’s commitment to developing renewable energy and achieving their goal to meet all increased energy needs through conservation and renewable sources. One of these solar arrays is designed to generate approximately 120,000 kilowatt hours annually, which will offset greenhouse gas emissions by about 2.0 to 2.5 metric tons of CO2 and save $10,000 in energy costs per year.  


Purchasing and implementing low- and zero-emissions technology requires overhauling sizable amounts of existing infrastructure. Unfortunately, building out this infrastructure is not cheap – the Port of Long Beach has completed more than $185 million worth of dockside power hookups and other infrastructure for vessel shore power alone. 

Thankfully, the federal government has funded grant programs, such as the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act Program, that can be used to fund port emission reduction projects. In addition to existing grant funding mechanisms, there is movement within Congress to create new grant programs and additional funding to implement these types of initiatives at ports. 

The Climate Smart Ports Act (CSPA), introduced by Representative Barragán (D-CA), would establish the Climate Smart Ports Grant Program to award grants to eligible entities to purchase, and as applicable install, zero emissions port equipment and technology, and would authorize $10 billion over ten years for the program. Additionally, there is movement within the Biden Administration for port infrastructure. The American Jobs Plan would invest an additional $17 billion in inland waterways, coastal ports, land ports of entry, and ferries, including a Healthy Ports program to mitigate the cumulative impacts of air pollution on near-port communities. 

If the Biden Administration and environmental groups are serious about addressing environmental justice concerns, port air emissions and their impact on near-port communities cannot be overlooked. Ports have the ability and technology to reduce air emissions from their operations, but it will take money and public pressure for more ports to actually implement these technologies and initiatives. 

Implementing the mentioned programs will help mitigate climate change and impacts to environmental justice communities that are disproportionately harmed by air pollution. There is now greater momentum than ever to make sweeping changes at U.S. ports.  

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