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.
“He goes to the LPC, the Legislative Policy Committee, and states that on behalf of the caucus. So it was not a statement he made on behalf of the Port of Seattle,” Skaggs said. ”It was a statement he made on behalf of this caucus with input from all the caucus members.”
“The Legislative Policy Committee as a whole decided that they were not going to support this.”
However, in a speech to a Seattle convention of a marine industry group known as the Propeller Club, Yoshitani three months earlier, in October 2009, proclaimed his opposition to the bill, saying “It would be a great disservice to commerce,” according to an account of his speech in American Shipper/Shippers’ Newswire.
A day after Yoshitani won the support of the national port lobby’s legislative committee, Port of Seattle executive Kurt Beckett circulated a packet put together by industry lobbyists outlining the industry’s opposition to the federal legislation. The package, which Beckett sent to other high-ranking port executives and the port’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C., contained the news story outlining Yoshitani’s opposition.
Among the signatories on letters to members of Congress trying to torpedo the proposed truck-regulation bill was the National Association of Waterfront Employers, Yoshitani’s former employer. The lobbying packet, according to Beckett’s email distributing it, was put together by the powerful National Retail Federation, representing major companies such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s, as well as the Waterfront Coalition, a lobbying group representing shippers, trucking companies and others involved in moving goods through ports.
Skaggs, the port spokeswoman, said Beckett’s distribution of the industry’s lobbying packet does not show any bias for or against the legislation on the part of the port. She said similar material from the other side of the debate, from environmental and labor lobbyists, had been distributed similarly within the port hierarchy.
Skaggs said the port’s D.C. lobbyists were contacted by members of the Washington congressional delegation after environmental and labor activists asked for the Congressional members’ support of the truck-regulation proposal.
She said the lobbying by the port’s D.C. lobbyists at McBee Strategies and by Beckett, then director of external affairs, consisted of telling members of Congress and their staffs what the port was doing and intended to do in the future to reduce harmful air-pollution emissions.
“We have stakeholders who support the issue, and stakeholders who oppose the issue,” Skaggs wrote. “…monitoring an issue and receiving or sharing information does not signify taking a position or lobbying for that position.”
In any case, at least one internal email suggests the port staff, particularly then-seaport manager Charlie Sheldon, was opposed to imposing any fees on dirty trucks.
Responding to Beckett’s note in which he revealed the ports’ lobby would oppose the truck-regulation bill, Sheldon wrote: “This looks like a great outcome from the meeting.”
Seattle port officials are loathe to impose extra fees as Los Angeles and Long Beach have done because they fear shippers will turn to B.C.’s two major ports, Vancouver and Prince Rupert. The Canadian ports, which don’t charge the fees, have aggressively marketed themselves as cheaper alternatives to America’s West coast ports.
They point to a 2008 study for the Washington Legislature that predicted a fee of $30 to $90 per shipping container would reduce cargo volumes at the Seattle port by 30 percent; it said a fee of $150 per container would cut cargo volume in half.
Considering that thousands of Seattle jobs are dependent on the port’s cargo operations, they say, it doesn’t make sense to charge extra fees to dirty trucks.
The 2008 study for the Legislature by economist Robert C. Leachman laid out a strategy that ultimately the Seattle port followed: Hold down fees to increase business. The report also outlined an alternate path, though: Impose the fees and use them to beef up port facilities and environmental programs.
“As fees are instituted at the California ports, they may be matched at Puget Sound in order to create a revenue source for infrastructure improvement and environmental impact mitigation without loss of market share, or,” the study said, jumping to the option chosen, “if unmatched, market share at the Puget Sound ports may be grown.”
Mike Moore, the Seattle representative of the Pacific Merchants Shipping Association, which represents companies that own cargo vessels and the marine terminal operator companies that unload them, was on the side of those who said charging extra fees in Seattle as in southern California was unwise.
He called the $70-a-truck fee at LA/Long Beach “significant.”
“There’s a direct competition,” Moore said. “If you look at when cargo is diverted out of LA/Long Beach, you’ll see that we pick up the cargo here.”
In January of this year, the Port of Seattle had some good news to share. “The cargo volumes are exciting, and we are proud,” Yoshitani said in a press release.
The good news: Cargo imports last year at the Port of Seattle hit the equivalent of 2.1 million standard containers. Surpassing even the volumes of 2005, when the economy was red hot, the Port of Seattle pulled down a record year amid an otherwise-bleak economic recovery for the nation.
How did the port pull it off? Lynda Stryrk, managing seaport director, praised the port’s ability to accommodate large ships and its proximity to rail and highway transportation routes, advantages also enjoyed by the LA/Long Beach ports. In a press release, Styrk also credited the fact that “we remain fee-free.”
This story is the product of a collaboration between InvestigateWest, an independent nonprofit newsroom covering the Pacific Northwest, and public broadcasting station KCTS Channel 9. For more information, go to www.invw.org, or www.kcts9.org. Please consider a donation to support this kind of in-depth reporting.