Making the region's ports more environmentally sustainable

Making the region's ports more environmentally sustainable

Earlier this month, at my request (and with a lot of hard work by my staff, especially Policy Director Michael Freedman-Schnapp) the Waterfronts Committee in the City Council held a hearing on ways to improve air quality at the ports in New York harbor.  We heard testimony from the Port Authority, the NYC Economic Development Corp, neighbors of the port, truckers, environmental advocates, and waterfront advocates about how we can make our port greener.  During my campaign, I made a promise to advance policies to make our port the greenest on the East Coast, and this was the beginning of that effort.

At a time when our roads, bridges and tunnels are gridlocked and overburdened, moving goods by bulk in water is itself more environmentally sound than almost any other mode.  Our port is also an economic engine, directly supporting tens of thousands of jobs in the region. Yet this engine needs to move to sustainable practices to make our environment healthier and to prepare for the ever-rising prices of conventional energy.  We see this in our own backyard, in the Columbia Waterfront and Red Hook neighborhoods, where more traffic in the port is often good for the region as a whole … but presents serious challenges for the neighborhood environment.   

In recognizing this, the Port Authority is implementing a clean truck program to prevent the dirtiest trucks from using the port starting next year.  The Coalition for Healthy Ports (a national group of labor, environmental and community advocates) thinks they could go farther and adopt a model that the Port of Los Angeles has put into place that phases out old, dirty trucks quicker, and also addresses key workers’ rights issues facing the truckers.

The need for an effective clean truck program was underscored by the testimony of two port truckers that serve the NY and NJ ports. They described how they are inappropriately classified by those who contract for their work as “independent contractors” – even though almost everything about their work is controlled by freight-moving companies, they still have to pretend they are small business owners, which mostly means they have to buy their own trucks.  The companies do not invest in their trucks, and since the workers make little money, they can generally only afford the oldest, dirtiest trucks, leaving the drivers and neighbors of the port breathing in dangerous diesel emissions. 

A key to tackling this problem is to allow ports to regulate environmental and labor conditions, which requires a change in federal law.  Congressman Jerrold Nadler will be introducing legislation in Congress to allow this, and I will be introducing a resolution in the Council to support this change.  Closer to home, I’ll also be working hard to make sure that the NYC Economic Development Corporation lives up to their agreement to keep the Phoenix Beverage trucks off of Columbia Street, where they pose real problems for the community.

We also heard from many neighbors of the ports, including in Red Hook, where Mina Roustayi (representing the Columbia Waterfront Neighborhood Alliance), and Adam Armstrong (author of A View from the Hook, you can read his summary of the hearing here) talked powerfully about the impacts that the port and cruise terminal have on local communities.

One essential – and overdue – part of the effort to clean up the air near the ports is to plug ships in to “shore power,” rather than having them idle in port (which contributes pollutants equivalent to thousands of cars).  The first plug-in shore power in the area is supposed to be for the Carnival Cruise ships at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.  At the hearing the NYC Economic Development Corporation (which operates the Cruise Terminal) said that final details are under negotiation.  The Port Authority and the EPA have agreed to pay for the infrastructure, EDC indicated they will help subsidize the rate, and the New York Power Authority has taken some of the necessary steps. 

Now is the time for action on shore power, and I will be following up to make sure it is implemented quickly at the cruise terminal.  After this is in place, all new berths in the harbor should include this technology, and the largest existing berths in the harbor should undergo a similar conversion.  At the same time, international law will require ships to begin using cleaner fuels, beginning in 2011.   

While the Port of New York and New Jersey dominates the East Coast as the largest and busiest harbor complex, it sits in a competitive market that pits our region against others for important and growing slices of international trade.  It is my belief that with the right set of policies, we can find a balance that will allow our port to both increase its sustainability and its productivity.

I would like to thank Chair Michael Nelson for arranging this hearing and for the hard work of Jeffrey Baker and Colleen Pagter preparing it for the Waterfronts Committee, as well as the work of my staff Michael Freedman-Schnapp and Lloyd Hicks.