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Pollution from backlogged ships off the Calif. coast is affecting air quality


There is still a backlog of ships waiting off the coast of Los Angeles because of supply chain problems. Those vessels in the bay are making the region's poor air quality worse, and residents are worried about what that means for their health, as Megan Jamerson with KCRW reports.

MEGAN JAMERSON, BYLINE: At his neighborhood in West Long Beach, Calif., Ron Batiste sitting at his kitchen table. And while he's talking, he has to pause fairly often.

RON BATISTE: Forgive me if it's hard for me to breathe.

JAMERSON: The 72-year-old musician's never been diagnosed with a lung condition, but he says this shortness of breath happens sometimes. Part of the problem, he thinks, is his neighborhood's air quality, which has been terrible for decades. Batiste points to the grime that collects daily around the sliding glass door and the AC vent, despite running an air purifier.

BATISTE: It's not just dust. It's like oil.

JAMERSON: Within two miles of his home is a rail yard, truck yard, oil refinery and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the single largest source of emissions in the region. And with the months-long backlog at these ports, California state air regulators are warning the pollution from the extra ships is like adding nearly 6 million passenger cars to the road each day.

Mario Cordero heads the Port of Long Beach. He says he's aware people find the increased emissions worrisome.

MARIO CORDERO: The number of container ships at anchor off the coast should be zero. In the meantime, the best way to reduce the emissions is to reduce the number of ships at anchor.

JAMERSON: To do that requires clearing out the backlog, which the ports say should be sometime before the end of 2022. In the meantime, the ports have slowed down ship arrivals and are requiring them to anchor further offshore. The long-term solution is battery-powered ships, which Cordero says is not a short-term prospect.

CORDERO: You know, you're looking now that maybe by 2050 or 2040, you're going to have some real substantive steps to move towards zero-emission vessels or cleaner fuels.

JAMERSON: According to a study published in the journal Nature, these port-side neighborhoods have over 1,000 premature deaths associated with ship pollution each year.

ELISA NICHOLAS: There's very clear data about living in the areas where that pollution is higher.

JAMERSON: Dr. Elisa Nicholas is a pediatrician and the CEO of several local health centers near the ports. She'd like the rest of the country to understand the health costs of imported cheaper goods in these communities.

NICHOLAS: They are affected by the goods movement that many people are benefiting from.

JAMERSON: She points to higher-than-average rates of childhood cancer, asthma and asthma-related emergency room visits. These communities are also lower income, underinsured, and majority Black and brown.

NICHOLAS: And so really, we need to realize that this is a health equity issue, and it's an environmental justice issue, too.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Let it go. Let it go.

JAMERSON: Long Beach's Hilltop Park rises above the coast and offers a panoramic view of the ports. The sun is starting to set, a dozen ships are lined up heading into port, and a wind gusts toward shore, blowing what looks like smog.

THERAL GOLDEN: See the yellowness?

JAMERSON: Theral Golden has lived in the area for 50 years. He's a retired transit worker and is frustrated by how little has changed with this decades-long environmental problem.

GOLDEN: We should not be bearing the brunt of the trade industry on our backs because that's what it boils down to at the end of the day.

JAMERSON: And the longer it takes for the industry to clean up, says Golden, the longer his community will continue to see preventable deaths.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Jamerson in Long Beach.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "WILD WERE THE WAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Jamerson