When Port of Seattle Chief Executive Officer Tay Yoshitani took over the nation’s sixth busiest cargo port, he vowed to vault it ahead of competing ports in its environmental record.
"The cleanest, greenest, most energy-efficient port in the U.S.,” is what Yoshitani promised not long after taking over in 2007.
Yet under Yoshitani’s leadership:
The port has run advertisements in shipping-industry trade journals boasting about its lack of “clean-truck fees” like those charged at competing West coast ports with stricter controls on air pollution emitted by privately operated trucks that move cargo. “Fee free. NOW. No clean truck fees … and collaborating with our customers to keep it that way,” the ads said.
The American Association of Port Authorities North Pacific caucus, which he chairs, opposed changes in federal legislation that would give port directors like Yoshitani power to curb pollution from the trucks.
While the port said it was remaining officially neutral on efforts in Congress to regulate truck pollution, Yoshitani made his personal opposition clear before a shipping-industry audience in Seattle, calling the idea “a disservice to commerce.”
David Pettit is the Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer who sued the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports to force cleanup of the trucks there. He said the Port of Seattle’s ads present the unusual situation of Seattle — which LA residents look up to as “an environmental nirvana” — being outpaced by LA at going green.
"You should be ashamed of those ads,” Pettit said. “What those ads do is mock Los Angeles for our environmental program. They say, bring your (dirty trucks) to Seattle.”
In fact, some drivers working at the Port of Seattle today are driving trucks they bought in California, where the trucks are too old and dirty to haul Port of Los Angeles cargo, said Paul Marvy, an attorney and activist with Change To Win, a non-profit group working on the trucks issue.
The trucks that service the Port of Seattle regularly traverse roads in and around the neighborhoods of south Seattle, where two recent studies documented high levels of toxic air pollutants, and where the rate of children hospitalized for asthma is the worst in King County.
Much of the air pollution comes from diesel engines like those in the port trucks, according to government environmental regulators. Environmental activists are pressuring the port to clean up the trucks, as the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are doing.
Port officials scheduled an interview with Yoshitani for this story, but canceled it after being notified he would be asked about the “fee free NOW” ad.
Port spokeswoman Charla Skaggs defended Yoshitani’s record, saying his opposition to a truck reform law was not on behalf of the Port of Seattle, and that the ad was part of a larger campaign that also emphasized the port’s commitment to operating in an environmentally sensitive way.
We’re working to clean up the air while we’re working with the industry to keep the jobs here,” Skaggs said. “We have never said that we’ve arrived and there’s not more work to do.”
Yoshitani has launched some environmental initiatives. On the air pollution front, the port has sought to reduce diesel emissions by providing financial assistance to ships at berth so they can burn clean fuels. To keep docked cruise ships from belching the toxic, sooty diesel discharge, the port now provides shore-side electric power to some cruise ships. And efforts have been undertaken to reduce emissions from cargo-handling equipment.
That’s not enough, critics say. Yoshitani, a West Point grad who earned his MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, was formerly director of the port in Oakland, Calif. That port has since moved more quickly than the Seattle port to require cleaner trucks. The same is true of the other two major west coast U.S. ports that bring ashore lots of cargo, Long Beach and Los Angeles, Calif. Those ports reported major reductions in air pollution after regulations on cargo-hauling trucks went into effect.
Los Angeles and Long Beach allow old, dirty trucks to come onto the premises only if they pay a $70-per-trip “clean truck fee.” That was enough to significantly discourage the use of older trucks that, because they predate federally mandated engine cleanup upgrades, pollute much more than those produced in 2007 and later.
The Port of Seattle ads were a clear challenge to the LA/Long Beach truck fees, according to The Cunningham Report, a website then covering the shipping industry, which offered this assessment:
The ad doesn't mention the Southern California ports, but it doesn't have to. It's clear that Seattle is taking aim at the competition 1,200 miles to the south.
Skaggs, the Port of Seattle spokeswoman, said the ad was one of three in a campaign. The other two highlighted the port’s pitch that it’s the lowest-greenhouse-footprint destination for Asian cargo vessels, and boasted that Seattle is “Faster. Better. Cleaner.” Each ad carried this note: “Where a sustainable world is headed,” a port slogan.
The emphasis was on our environmental program,” Skaggs said.
The “fee free NOW” ad also touted the Port of Seattle’s lack of three other fees not related to air pollution.
It was part of an all-out campaign to hang on to business that is easily siphoned off by other ports, especially those in Canada, said Bari Bookout, director of commercial strategy for the Seattle seaport.
"We want to keep the jobs here, and it’s hard,” Bookout said. “We were struggling to keep the business here.”
Early last year, while the ad campaign was in full swing, Yoshitani helped convince the American Association of Port Authorities to reject efforts in Congress to give the nation’s ports greater power over trucks. The measure would have granted ports the authority to set environmental, safety and operational standards for trucking companies doing business on port property.
Sierra Club Seattle Chair Brady Montz said he found Yoshitani’s efforts to derail reforms particularly galling given the port’s previous statements on the issue.
For years the port would always say we’d love to do more, but we can’t because of the law — an annoying but not particularly unreasonable argument,” Montz said. For example, at a Port Commission meeting in March 2009, the port’s head lawyer, Tom Tanaka, warned of “significant legal issues” in trying to regulate the trucks under current law.
His remark came as the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council were building momentum in Congress to amend an obscure provision of federal law — dating to the national trucking deregulation of the 1980s — that makes it difficult for ports to regulate the trucks. Civic and port leaders from several other large port cities, including Los Angeles, Oakland, New York and Newark, N.J., endorsed the legislation, saying it would level the playing field and remove the threat of suits by the trucking industry.
Yoshitani and the port commission “went from ‘Love to do but can’t,’ to actively trying to stop that loophole from getting closed,” Montz said.
Skaggs said Yoshitani was not speaking on behalf of the port when he addressed his fellow members of the ports association’s Legislative Policy Committee. He was speaking on behalf of the port association’s North Pacific Caucus, she said. That includes the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and smaller ports including Portland and Vancouver, Wash., Skaggs said.
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