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Boatloads of Trouble

By       Message Stan Cox       (Page 1 of 4 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   3 comments

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Nineteen hundred miles of railroad track separate Gardner, Kansas from the seaports of Southern California. But through the miracle of global trade, Gardner will soon be transformed into a Los Angeles suburb.

Over the next decade, an “intermodal and logistics park” will be built on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway at the southern edge of Gardner. It’s needed to handle goods imported from Asia via the Los Angeles and Long Beach seaports. Gardner could eventually find itself playing host to as many as 30 freight trains per day, each a mile and a half long, along with thousands of big-rig trucks.

The community of 16,000, just across the state line from Kansas City, Missouri, will eventually be sandwiched between 7 million square feet of warehouses in the logistics park to the south and 4 to 5 million square feet in an industrial park to the north. The total warehouse floorspace easily exceeds that of all the housing in Gardner.

And Claud Hobby, who’ll be living about three-fourths of a mile from the new facility, can already feel the burn of diesel fumes in his nostrils. The pollution will be growing thicker over his neighborhood with each passing year, but he’s trying to keep his sense of humor. He says, “They talk about making Kansas a smoke-free state, but it looks like Gardner’s going to be the designated smoking section.”

With environmentalists devoting most of their efforts in recent years to sounding the alarm on global climate change, local pollution isn’t always getting the attention it deserves. But if you share your the neighborhood with the sprawling -- and growing -- infrastructure that moves imported goods from seaports to retailers, you can’t help paying attention. You don’t need to be reminded that air pollutants, even when they’re not warming the planet, can threaten your health and even your life.

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Along the cancer trail

Economists, bureaucrats, and investors rejoiced late last month when the Commerce Department announced that US exports in June were up sharply, $28.8 billion higher than June 2007’s exports. The Department made less noise about the rising tide of imports, which were up $26.4 billion.

Leaving aside that portion of the increased import bill that was due to rising oil prices, the nation’s seaports, airports, railways, and highways were still faced with moving an additional $40 billion worth of stuff in and out across our borders, on top of the $330 billion worth of stuff that’s already going in and out each month.

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Imports -- mostly consumer and industrial goods, not oil – continue to dominate over exports in America’s trade equation. Hunger for imports keeps rising, and the nation’s capacity to manufacture those products keeps shrinking. So hauling, sorting, and delivering foreign-made goods has evolved into a fast-growing, high-tech, high-profit industry.

The American Association of Port Authorities says the nation’s seaports are now handling 1.4 billion tons of goods annually and that waterborne container traffic will double by 2020. These days, as every shopper knows, a big share of that traffic is coming across the Pacific from Asia.

Seattle and Oakland handle some of those Asian goods, but most enter the US through he twin seaports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Together, they comprise the third-largest container-handling facility in the world, receiving 40 percent of all imports entering the US. Traffic through the two ports is expected to triple within 15 years.

At those cargo bottlenecks where ships, trains, and trucks converge, the air can kill you. Oceangoing ships burn the lowest of low-quality diesel oil, and the fuel used by locomotives isn’t much better. Trucks burn a greater quantity of fuel per ton hauled, with correspondingly high emissions.

According to LA and Long Beach authorities, the movement of cargo through their ports was responsible in 2005 for emissions laden with 6000 tons of particle matter -- soot, smoke, dust, organic matter, and other microscopic flecks that can invade deep into the lungs -- and more than 46,000 tons of nitrogen and sulfur oxides.

In and near the world’s ports and coastal sea lanes, emissions from oceangoing vessels caused 60,000 premature deaths in 2002 (pdf). With increasing trade, the number of such deaths is projected to increase 40 percent by 2012. Ships’ crews, dock workers, truckers, other port personnel, and local residents are all vulnerable.

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The particulate matter produced by burning diesel has been associated with lung cancer, asthma, chronic bronchitis, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, decreased lung function in children, and infant mortality.

Currently, according to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a relatively small community of 50,000 people living on the fringes of the LA and Long Beach ports suffers 25 new cases of cancer each year because of diesel pollution from ships, trucks, and dock equipment. Similar cancer risks were found for people living around nearby rail yards. Within a “several mile” radius of the ports, estimated CARB, the air pollutants kill about 75 people per year (pdf).

The great indoors

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Stan Cox is author of "Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine" (Pluto Press, April 2008). He conducts plant-breeding research and writes in Salina, Kansas.

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