LOS ANGELES — Proponents of the Clean Trucks Program being implemented at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are prepared for a protracted legal battle even as they have their sights set on expanding the program to new ports.

This story first appeared in the March 10, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

David Pettit, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who heads the Southern California Air Program, made it clear in his remarks at last week’s Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference that the organization intended to push for clean truck programs to be implemented at a number of the nation’s largest port facilities.

“You could be next,” said Pettit before launching into a list of ports, including Oakland and Houston, the NRDC has targeted for similar efforts.

If there is resistance to banning the dirtiest trucks from servicing ports, Pettit welcomed taking the matter to the legal arena.

“We know where the courtrooms are,” he said.

Opposition to such programs is equally as adamant. Curtis Whalen, executive director of the American Trucking Associations’ Intermodal Carriers Conference, responded to Pettit by suggesting the troubled economy has stopped ports from pursuing major environmental initiatives that could further impede business.

“I do not see a national trend toward the hands-on, redo-the-trucking-industry approach that unfortunately Los Angeles and Long Beach has taken,” he said.

The heated back-and-forth between Pettit and Whalen, which took place at the downtown Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites during a session entitled “Trucking Upheaval in L.A.-Long Beach — A National Trend?” reflects the ongoing legal battle between environmentalists, labor unions and trucking groups over the clean trucks program that started Oct. 1 at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. The program’s objective is to, by 2012, reduce truck-related pollution at the twin ports by 80 percent through the removal of some 16,000 pre-2007 diesel rigs. Los Angeles-Long Beach is the nation’s largest port system and the main entry point for goods from Asia.

The latest round in the legal battle occurred last Wednesday when a three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena, Calif., heard oral arguments concerning an injunction sought by the ATA, a group that represents 37,000 trucking companies nationwide, to halt the program. A district court denied the injunction in September, and the three-judge panel has up to 60 days to decide whether to insist that the district court reconsider that denial.

The Federal Maritime Commission has also gotten involved in the legal wrangling over the clean trucks program. It filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Washington last October to block a concession plan being implemented by the Port of Los Angeles and is conducting its own investigation to determine how a $35 fee per 20-foot container being levied to fund the program affects transportation costs and services.

At the heart of the argument against the clean trucks program is a Port of Los Angeles mandate that denies port access to truck drivers not employed by licensed motor carriers. Labor unions and environmental organizations strongly support the mandate and assert it will help ensure trucks are speedily retrofitted or replaced, but trucking groups contend it illegally interferes with interstate commerce and the business of independent drivers, a group that owns an estimated 85 percent of the trucks operating at the ports.

Charles Carroll, executive director of the National Association of Waterfront Employers, alleged that the port of Los Angeles is seeking to control interstate commerce for the sake of a “hidden agenda” to promote the unionization of truckers.

“It is important that the federal courts get this right or we could end up with anarchy and chaos in the intermodal movement of goods,” he said.

Union matters aside, Pettit countered that the Port of Los Angeles’ process is working better to keep emissions in check. He noted that 3,000 clean trucks have been financed by the Port of Los Angeles, compared to roughly 300 by Long Beach.

“What concerns us is the scale [at] which this is going to happen,” he said.

All sides did seem to agree upon one thing — the legal confrontations over the clean trucks program are not ending soon.

“I believe this is going to be settled in the Supreme Court of the United States,” said Carroll. “It may take four or five years.”