Short-haul truck drivers who pick up and deliver containers at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma are organizing a walkout Tuesday to protest a proposed April 1 deadline restricting port access to allow only newer, cleaner-burning diesel trucks.
Independent drivers, who own their trucks and contract for work one load at a time, say the cost of upgrading to cleaner vehicles will put many of them out of business.
The drivers are mostly immigrants from east Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, according to the Northwest Seaport Alliance, an agency formed in 2015 to merge the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
A flyer distributed late last week calls on independent drivers to attend a meeting of commissioners from both ports Tuesday. At the meeting, Seaport Alliance commissioners are set to decide whether to adopt the new April 1 deadline for their self-imposed, decade-old commitment to cleaner-burning trucks.
“We all need to show up. No excuse,” reads the flyer, which follows at least three meetings in January that drew hundreds of drivers. “We will (be) shutting down both Seattle and Tacoma terminals the whole day.”
Asked last week about a potential walkout, Seaport Alliance spokesperson Tara Mattina said, “We recognize this is a really complicated issue and it’s unlikely we can make everyone happy. We’re trying our best to find that compromise that still works toward reducing air emissions related to trucks and addresses some of (the drivers’) issues as well.”
Meanwhile, a bill making its way through the state Legislature could take the decision about clean truck rules out of the hands of port officials. House Bill 2601 would bar diesel delivery trucks that do not meet 2007 federal emissions standards from working at the ports starting Jan. 1, 2019.
Updating the trucks would help clean up the air around the ports and nearby neighborhoods, where high concentrations of fine particles released by diesel engines put residents and workers at greater risk for heart disease, asthma and cancer. Trucks outfitted with a newer diesel filter system can cost between about $40,000 and $60,000.
The original deadline to swap out higher-polluting trucks was Jan. 1, 2018. To date, only 53 percent of the 4,500 trucks registered to serve the ports meet the 2007 federal emission standards, according to the Seaport Alliance.
Drivers generally agree reducing pollution is a priority. Many of them live in low-income neighborhoods around the ports where diesel trucks make frequent runs, leaving deadly emissions in their wake. Some estimate drivers are making no more than minimum wage once their expenses are deducted – a tiny sliver of the $4.3 billion in economic activity the Seaport Alliance says is generated annually by goods shipped through the Seattle and Tacoma ports.
Paying for new trucks would reduce their share even more, drivers argue, forcing some into debt and others out of the business altogether.
“This is our livelihood,” said Yared Meconnen, 34, an owner-operator who helped organize the driver meetings. “They’re telling me to shut down my business without compensation.”
Last month, Craig Kenworthy, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, implored port commissioners to commit to the April 1 deadline.
“No one suggests that the state allow the drivers to operate with faulty brakes or without lights because they face economic challenges,” said Kenworthy, speaking at the joint commissioners’ meeting. “That’s because health and safety are at stake. Well, they’re at stake here as well. Air pollution causes lost work days, sick days out of school for children and kills approximately 1,000 Washingtonians every year.”
A decade ago, a special federal study revealed elevated cancers risks from airborne toxics across a swath of south Seattle to West Seattle, with the heaviest risks concentrated in the low-income Duwamish River Valley neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown.
In response to that and additional evidence about the health risks posed by burning diesel fuel, the ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, B.C., agreed to reduce their air emissions. Part of the Northwest Ports Clean Air Strategy involved requiring all trucks coming in and out of the ports to meet 2007 federal emission standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
State Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, the primary sponsor of HB 2601, said he has lost faith in the Seaport Alliance to hit the new truck emissions target on its own. Fey said he is particularly frustrated with the Tacoma port – which is in his district – for failing to install technology at the gates to screen for compliant trucks. The Port of Seattle has a system ready to go.
“This is as much of a message bill as anything else,” Fey said. “They need to be paying attention to the public’s concerns.”
Fey added that while upgrading their trucks will be difficult for some drivers, reducing pollution is the priority for the health of the ports' neighbors as well as the ability of the Seaport Alliance to compete with other large West Coast ports.
To that end, HB 2601 also requires the Seaport Alliance to submit a report to the Legislature by 2020 outlining a plan to ensure that all trucks produce zero emissions by 2035. The Los Angeles-Long Beach port is aiming for zero emissions in 2035 as well.
Focusing only on trucks overshadows the other gains in air quality achieved by the ports, said Kurt Beckett, deputy CEO at the Northwest Seaport Alliance.
Preliminary results from a 2016 study show diesel emissions dropped by 80 percent per ton of cargo since 2005 in the Puget Sound region, according to a Seaport staff brief. However, Beckett acknowledged much of that progress is due to cleaner ship operations, and the pollution from trucks rumbling through neighborhoods still needs to be addressed.
“Missing this goal does impact nearby communities in the way that Representative Fey is speaking to,” Beckett said. “It’s a concern to us as well.”
Meanwhile, trucking company owners who invested in new vehicles to meet the original deadline — and are finding that the newer trucks break down more often and are costly to repair — say the enforcement delay puts them at a competitive disadvantage with those who skipped the upgrade.
Rob Graham, owner of Graham Trucking based near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, said he and nine other trucking company owners plan to file a lawsuit against the Seaport Alliance over the missed deadline.
“They’re strengthening folks who are purposely not complying with their mandate and weakening those of us who did what they asked,” said Graham, who started buying newer, cleaner trucks three years ago in preparation for the original deadline.
Port drivers move containers filled with products from overseas to local rail yards and nearby warehouses, and the items eventually restock shelves at big-box stores and other major retailers.
Independent drivers pay their own expenses, including maintenance, gas, insurance and parking. A blown tire, a sick day or heavy traffic can eat up a sizable portion of their earnings. And the availability of work itself is unpredictable. Some days, drivers can do five or six “turns” — or trips back and forth to the ports. Other days, there is not enough work to cover their costs.
Asmerom Gebremeskel is one such driver. So far, the dispatchers call him often enough to keep his family afloat. Gebremeskel, who lives in Delridge with his wife and three children, ages 12, 8 and 6, came to the United States from Eritrea in 1993 when he was 16.
He is still paying back the $40,000 he borrowed from his uncle to buy his 2006 truck three years ago.
“If they’re telling me to throw my truck out, I’ll just park it on the street,” said Gebremeskel, 39. “I can’t afford to buy another truck. I’m going to lose my house.”
An estimated 80 percent of the drivers going in and out of the ports are independent owner-operators like Gebremeskel, according to the Seaport Alliance. Many of the remaining drivers make deliveries in company-owned trucks for an hourly wage.
Trucking companies contract with shippers and then dispatch truckers to move the containers. The dispatching company keeps a portion of the prices for container deliveries, which are negotiated between company and shipper. The drivers are not involved, leaving them in the dark about the agreed-upon rates.
“They don’t tell you how much they’re making,” Gebremeskel said. “Usually, they say they get 20 percent. You just take their word.”
The rate that drivers earn per load can range depending on how far they drive to make a delivery.
Gebremeskel, who makes one or two longer trips a day — sometimes up to Bellingham or down to Portland — earns between $100 and $120 for every turn. Minus expenses, including fuel and insurance, he estimates he takes home about $15 an hour.
Other drivers fit in five or six round-trips to the ports per day for about $50 a turn.
“The majority of drivers are living paycheck to paycheck,” said Howard Greenwich, senior policy advisor at Puget Sound Sage, a community group that advocates for cleaner air around the ports and helped launch a campaign in 2008 to improve working conditions for port drivers.
Asking the lowest paid workers in the industry to absorb the cost of environmental regulations is not realistic, Greenwich said.
“Unless you change the structure of the industry and how that works, it seems like the clean truck program was bound to fail,” he said.
In January, a grassroots group of independent drivers held several meetings to discuss options for negotiating with the Seaport Alliance or possibly staging a more public demonstration, including a potential walkout.
Some 400 port drivers from Seattle and Tacoma last walked off the job in 2012. That protest led to important gains, including some companies increasing their rates for drivers and offering standby pay for time lost idling in long lines at the port.
In 2012, the drivers worked closely with Teamsters Local 174. This time around, they are organizing on their own, using texts and flyers to share information and call general meetings.
“We’ve been silent for so long,” said Meconnen, who was also involved in the 2012 walkout. “And now we’re one.”
Drivers say they recently elected five members to represent them at a private meeting on Jan. 29 with staff and commissioners from the Seaport Alliance. John Wolfe, CEO of the Northwest Seaport Alliance, attended the meeting along with four other commissioners from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, according to Mattina, the Seaport spokesperson.
After the meeting, port staff amended their recommendation to allow an extension until Dec. 31 for drivers “who are making an earnest effort” to buy cleaner trucks, according to a Seaport staff brief.
Graham, the trucking company owner, said the extension option renders an April 1 deadline “meaningless.”
“The problem is the port doesn’t know what to do,” Graham said. “They’re trying to appease everybody and they’re just not going to appease everyone.”
On a recent cold and rainy afternoon, a handful of drivers met outside at a Starbucks in Georgetown. With their rigs parked for the day, they lamented the lack of work this time of year. Chinese New Year celebrations generally mean fewer containers shipped into Pacific Northwest ports around January and February.
“I moved two cans,” Desbele Kifle said, referring to the containers he delivered that day.
The others nodded as Michael Alazar, who owns a small trucking company based in Seatac, pointed to the 37-year-old Kifle. “So he don’t make anything,” Alazar said. After expenses, Kifle would not take home any pay that day.
More than the slow time of year, the drivers worried about the risk of going into debt to buy a cleaner-burning truck. Drivers who have upgraded — including Alazar — have complained to others that the filters on the newer trucks make the engines burn too hot for short runs to and from the port, resulting in frequent breakdowns and hefty maintenance bills.
“I can’t have plans to buy a truck,” said Fitwahi Tesfagbir, 30. “Nobody is happy with the new trucks. Everybody gets a headache.”
If the ports start enforcing the newer truck standards, Tesfagbir said he will get rid of his 2004 truck, which he bought for $12,000 in 2016, and leave the business. He might try to get a job driving for Uber, he said.
Port officials say they are doing what they can to assist drivers, including a potential program to help them secure market-rate loans to buy newer trucks. The port also has worked with the African Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific Northwest to host outreach forums for drivers. On Saturday, the port held open houses in Tacoma and Seattle to provide drivers with information about how to replace their older trucks.
A federal grant run by the Clean Air Agency and the Seaport Alliance helped mostly independent drivers pay for about half the cost of upgrading their trucks. Between 2014 and 2017, the so-called Seaport Truck Scrappage and Replacements for Air in Puget Sound program, or ScRAPS, swapped out 413 older vehicles, according to the Seaport Alliance. A new round of grant money could have paid to replace another 70 trucks, but the funding fell through when the ports appeared likely to miss the deadline to switch over to cleaner trucks, according to the Seaport Alliance.
Seattle Port Commissioner Fred Felleman said he supports extending the deadline to Jan. 1, so drivers have more time to prepare.
“Whatever date we set, we have to live by,” Felleman said. “Any further sliding of the deadline is bad for everybody. We need predictability and we also need adequate lead time for people to make decisions on their life and future.”
This story is part of InvestigateWest’s Statehouse News Project, a crowdfunded effort to provide independent reporting on environmental issues being considered by the 2018 Washington Legislature.
Correction: An earlier quote by Craig Kenworthy said, "Air pollution causes lost work days, sick days out of school for children and kills approximately 100,000 Washingtonians every year." The quote has been updated to say it actually kills 1,000 Washingtonians each year.