Melissa: Last week president Biden announced that the Port of Los Angeles is joining the Port of Long Beach in moving to expand the 24/7 operations. This is the easy effects of America's supply chain crisis ahead of the holiday season.
President Biden: By increasing the number of late-night hours of operation and opening up for less crowded hours, when the goods can move faster, today's announcement has the potential to be a game-changer.
Melissa: Now, ports and shipping containers aren't exactly heart-thumping, headline news, but they are foundational to the history of the United States. Remember the Boston tea party, here's a little refresher from Schoolhouse Rock circuit, 1975.
He even has the nerve
To tax our cup of tea.
To put it kindly, King,
We really don't agree. Going to show you how we feel.
We're going to dump this tea
And turn this harbor into
The biggest cup of tea in history!
They wanted no more Mother England.
Melissa: Now, supply chains, aren't just the star of the 18th-century founding, they're the main character in 20th-century economic growth. The biggest star of all, the Panama Canal.
Melissa: In 1902, president Teddy Roosevelt bet his legacy on carving out a passage to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Panama Canal opened for business in 1914. When it did, it elevated the US to the dominant commercial and military power of the Western hemisphere. It is not an exaggeration to understand the Panama Canal at the very core of the US geopolitical strategy in the 20th century. Billions of dollars in goods pass through the intricate lock system, speeding global supply chains and the movement of military assets.
To date, about $270 billion worth of goods pass through the canal every single year. It provides passageway for over 80 countries. It represents 5% of the world's trade and tolls account for 80% of the revenue generated. The lesson of all this might seem obvious, get those ports open, hashtag thanks, Joe Biden. What this heroic tale of the canal ignores is that opening up the supply chain and ports had real costs as well. Costs that were shouldered disproportionately by the least powerful.
Melissa: Let's go back to that early 20th century moment because present-day Panama at that time was part of Columbia and Columbia had no intention of allowing Roosevelt access. Roosevelt did what any problem solver would do. He generated global capital to fund a revolution in Columbia, destabilized the government, and allowed the US to seize the land that is now Panama. Wild, right? Then after carving out the strategically placed new nation, Roosevelt got Panama to sign over control of the canal and its revenue.
Now, we paid for it, but it was a paltry sum compared to the riches the canal would produce over the course of the next century. The canal cost Panamanians hundreds of millions of dollars. Multiple estimates suggest that upward of 25,000 people lost their lives due to disease and unsafe working conditions. The overwhelming majority of those workers were Black West Indian laborers. Now, there have been ongoing tensions around the basic rights and living conditions for Panamanians, as well as accusations of discrimination against the labor force in the canal zone. In 1964, Panamanians protested, after the US denied them the right to fly their flag next to the American flag.
Speaker 1: It seems that violence just had to occur in Panama and now it has occurred. There are pockets of it throughout the city.
Melissa: In 1977, president Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal treaty and it agreed to release control of the canal zone to the nation of Panama in 1999.
Jimmy Carter: By guaranteeing the neutrality of the Panama canal, the treaties also serve the best interest of every nation that uses the canal.
Melissa: Now, the canal continues to fuel 21st-century global commerce. In 2016, just over 100 years after it first opened, the canal was expanded. With these huge new ships making their way through, there's more pressure on local ports to accommodate them. That means more money for infrastructure, the requirement of raising bridges, expanding port accessibility, and of course a workforce required to make all of it run.
Now, Americans are sighing in relief that Christmas will be saved by the 24/7 operations in Southern California ports but the story of the Panama Canal leads us to ask what are the cost to communities where those ports are located? Now, let's go to present-day, California. This month, the Biden administration has moved to open the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for 24/7 operations. It's a policy change intended to address the nationwide supply chain disruptions that have been taking place during the pandemic.
It's likely to make a real difference given that about 40% of the goods imported to the US through shipping containers, and while they go through these ports, but many environmental and health advocates say that these business decisions don't account for the interest of vulnerable California residents.
Dr. Afif El-Hasan: We have now a situation where the ports are being asked to function at maximum capacity, that they can 24 hours a day. I'm Dr. Afif El. Hassan. I am a pediatrician and I'm a spokesperson for the American Lung Association as well. The very fact that you're dealing with nonstop pollution day and night in those areas is very concerning and it's going to have an adverse effect on the communities and it's just a bad public health risk.
Melissa: According to Dr. El-Hasan, past environmental regulations did actually minimize the pollution coming out of the ports, but only temporarily.
Dr. Afif El-Hasan: The regulations that were put into place actually did start to improve the air. We were seeing better air quality in the area but as there was increase in the amount of goods coming through the area, which includes traffic, includes the ships themselves and their air pollution, and the increase in the number of warehouses and other facilities that have been built to accommodate the increased flow of goods through the area, we're starting to see increased air pollution in the area of the port.
Melissa: In order to balance the supply chain needs with environmental concerns, we need some big-picture solutions.
Dr. Afif El-Hasan: More electric vehicles, making sure that ships that are waiting to unload cargo and are near the coast are practicing ways in which they minimize the air pollution that they contribute to these communities. All that needs to be done at the same time and needs to be part of the solution when we decide how we're going to accommodate the increased needs for getting these goods distributed.
Melissa: At the moment, Dr. El-Hasan says that we're heading down a dangerous road by focusing on business needs first.
Dr. Afif El-Hasan: We cannot set a precedence where the economy ever takes priority over the health of people in this country. What affects one community will eventually affect all of us. It will affect us either because the air pollution is not going to sit in those communities. It's going to go everywhere and it's going to hurt all of us to some degree. We all are going to start paying for the extra healthcare needed if we've decided that certain communities are worse allowing to have detrimental health because we need those goods so badly.
Melissa: Can you put it down where the goats can get it for us and, make it clear to me, what are some of the changes? What are some of the things that change in day-to-day operations or in the tools and techniques that you were using?
Mario Cordero: That's a great question, Melissa, and there's drastic changes. Our goal here at the Southern California Port Complex, otherwise known as the St. Peter Bay Complex is to be zero-emission with regard to all cargo handling equipment by year 2030 and to be zero-emission with regard to all container trucks that come in and out of the port. Now, frankly, the 2035 goal for trucks, I think we're going to get there a lot quicker.
We already have demonstration projects with regard to electric trucks and hydrogens fuel trucks is coming down the line. I think the next five years is going to be a substantial progress with regard to those goals.
Melissa: Now, I also understand a bit more about this move to 24/7. I know that you met earlier this month with president Biden, and I'm wondering what policies you all discussed about this transition.
Mario Cordero: Well, number one, again this is a national crisis, if not a global crisis. I'm talking about the disruptions of the supply chain. I think your listeners and viewers, we could all have stories about what we don't have. What are we waiting to get in this Amazon state of mind era? I'm talking about the whole issue of eCommerce but suffice to say that I think whether it's in the business community or in the consumer sector, these cargos have to be delivered to the shelf. That's the dynamic that we have right now that we're trying to address.
Let's not forget that the Biden administration, I think it's for all our environmentalists, including I put myself in that classification, there is no administration who has come with such a proactive policy to address climate change, zero-emission infrastructure. With that, again, we got to keep in mind the perspective here in terms of dealing with a national crisis and, at the same time, what Long Beach has been able to prove, and Los Angeles, the port authority, is we can grow business and grow green. We’ve done it, we’ve proven it, and the excitement, as I’ve mentioned, the drastic difference it’s going to have here in the coming decade, if not sooner, is the substantial move towards zero-emission transportation truck movement.
Melissa: Now, talk to me about jobs. Even as recently as two or three years ago, this story would’ve been, how many jobs this is going to create. These days it feels like there’s a labor shortage, so I guess I want to know both how many more it’s going to create but also, are you going to have enough workers to fill them?
Mario Cordero: Well, the supply chain does have challenges. I’m talking about the warehouses, the truck drivers. Now, with regard to the port here, the dock workers, we have enough labor here, thankful to the ILWU, the men and women in that union who have been working and moving this cargo day in day out since this pandemic commenced. Let’s not forget that spring of 2020, we were all affected. Things like paper towels that ordinarily you depend on, as a simplistic example, you couldn’t even get. Now, of course, the reason is we’re trying to move so we don’t get back into that situation. Again, as to the shortage of labor, this industry is not immune from the shortage of labor, and all industries right now, which is another factor, in this crisis that we’re going through in this nation.
Melissa: We’ve talked a little bit about emissions and about air pollution. I’m wondering also about noise, and light, and just whether or not moving to a 24/7-- again, for those of us who don’t live near a port, to understand how much noise here might it be, how many more trucks on the road, or are you all using service roads, and are you far enough away from neighborhoods and communities that won’t have much of an impact?
Mario Cordero: Number one, I think, one of the benefits of zero-emission in addition to air quality is noise. Because, again, for the Port of Long Beach, 15% of our cargo handling equipment today is zero-emission. When you talk about electric trucks and zero-emission trucks-- and, again, the quest is let’s not depend on diesel or petrol anymore. We cannot move forward with that kind of a model, and we’re not.
I think, in terms of lighting, the Port of Long Beach has had a proactive policy with regard to LED lighting in the port complex, in the harbor district itself, where we have control of the lighting, that has changed to LED. Of course, we’re working with our terminals, many of them, they all really are moving towards LED lighting in the terminals.
Melissa: Maybe this isn’t a decided fact yet, or maybe it is, obviously, across the world, many ports operate on a 24/7 basis already. I know that what has driven this is the global supply chain crisis, the COVID-19 crisis but is this a permanent move? Is Port of Long Beach now into not just the medium-term future but the foreseeable future going to be a 24/7 operation?
Mario Cordero: Well, we need to move to a model of extended case of operation. I think, if you ask any truck driver that does this work, they’re tired of waiting two or three hours to get into a terminal to pick up the cargo. We need to address that issue of efficiency. The model of 24/7, when you move 20 million TEU containers, Melissa, here, at the Southern California Port Complex, you cannot move that kind of cargo with a model of yesterday.
Needless to say, we’re trying to accommodate not only consumers but the business interest here. Again, what we’re seeing here is a monumental demand of products, durable goods. Again, California is a state of 40 million people and, of course, when you talk about the region and all the cargo that goes back east, it’s quite an amount that you cannot move in standard hours of operation.
Melissa: Thank you so much to Mario Cordero who is executive director of the Port of Long Beach. This year, we might just have to call you Santa Claus. Thanks for joining us.
Mario Cordero: Thank you so much, Melissa. Thank you for having me.
[00:14:43] [END OF AUDIO]
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