Black Friday causes toxic traffic jams in US ports and warehouses


As millions of Americans rush to take advantage of Black Friday deals this weekend, the shopping spree will add to a pollution crisis unfolding in US ports. For months, broken supply chains have plagued port districts with more pollution than they normally experience. The holiday season will make matters worse.

The disaster unfolds dramatically in Southern California, home to the busiest port complex in the Western Hemisphere (which includes the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach). Here, freighters have piled up offshore as the pandemic wreaks havoc on global supply chains. The congestion spreads to indoor distribution centers which attract trucks, trains and planes transporting goods from warehouses to consumers’ doors.

All of this has consequences for the health of people. “We need these things on these ships, I understand that,” says Afif El-Hasan, pediatrician and national spokesperson for the American Lung Association. “But it’s going to hurt the people around the [areas] these goods pass.

Many factors destroyed global supply chains, but in short, there was a mismatch between supply and demand. The pandemic has closed factories. Meanwhile, people have started buying more for home improvement projects and new hobbies that they have chosen during the pandemic-induced closures. In the United States, container ships carrying these goods from Asia began to pile up in ports. In the first three quarters of this year, the movement of containers in and out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach was almost 30% higher than during the same period in 2019. As of November, carriers containers were parked outside the Port of Los Angeles for an average of 17 days, more than twice as long as at the start of the year. This has literally led to tons of additional air pollution in the area, as the ships idle their auxiliary engines offshore.

In early fall, these problems were compounded by the rush of retailers to haul holiday merchandise. Every day in October, container ships at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach pumped a total of 50 tonnes of nitrogen oxides per day – up from 30 tonnes before the pandemic, according to the regulatory agency’s estimates. California Air Resources Board (CARB). Oxides of nitrogen are toxic gases that can damage the lungs on their own and react with volatile organic compounds in the air to produce smog.

Container ships were also responsible for half a tonne of particulate pollution more per day in October than average levels before the pandemic. That’s about as many particles as 100,000 diesel trucks would produce, according to CARB. Particles, which can include soot, smoke, or other particles, can harm the heart and lungs and have been linked to health risks that can lead to premature death.

Globally, air pollution from shipping has been linked to 60,000 premature deaths in a single year. Congestion at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports in 2021 is enough to potentially trigger 30 more premature deaths from cardiopulmonary problems, said Michael Benjamin, head of the Air Quality Planning Division. and science at CARB. The edge.

Just like the cars, game consoles, clothing and other goods that come out of ships, pollution moves inland. In Southern California, it blows downwind of ships and gets trapped in two connected bowls in local geography. These include a dip in the landscape surrounding the ports, which quickly turns into bustling towns like Long Beach and San Pedro. The Port of Long Beach is nestled just off the city’s West Side, which has historically been home to immigrant and refugee enclaves, including Latinx, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander communities. Long Beach and Los Angeles, together, top the American Lung Association’s 2021 list of cities most polluted by smog.

Winds also blow into the nearby Inland Empire, which lies in another topographic bowl that traps port air pollution. It is an area encompassing San Bernardino and Riverside counties, two counties consistently rated among the worst smog in the United States by the American Lung Association. While the area was originally considered an orange grove empire in the early 1900s, today it looks more like an empire of warehouses. Online shopping, which has become even more popular during the pandemic, has fueled the explosive growth of warehouses for retailers, including Amazon, the region’s largest private sector employer.

Visual of the development of warehouses around San Bernardino airport from 2005 (left) to 2018 (right). The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice has a more interactive map of the warehouses surrounding the airport.
Images: CCAEJ / ESRI

Supply chain issues have only worsened a chronic pollution crisis for these communities. Census tracts in California with warehouses have significantly worse air pollution than similar areas without warehouses, according to research being reviewed for publication by Priyanka deSouza, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of the Colorado to Denver. Most of this pollution comes from diesel trucks. Coinciding with recent congestion at ports, CARB also estimates an increase in emissions from trucks this year, in addition to additional pollution from ships.

The holiday shopping season could further exacerbate pollution. “This is a time when warehouses are really flooded,” says Joaquin Castillejos, a community organizer with the nonprofit Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) who lives in Bloomington, an unincorporated community in the county. of San Bernardino. “The workers are working at their limit because they are trying to move the goods as fast as possible for the holidays.”

Before getting the job at CCAEJ, Castillejos worked in a warehouse that distributed Adidas shoes. Although no longer exposed to the same pollution as when he worked in a warehouse, Castillejos is now worried about pollution from a new industrial warehouse and an office complex that is expected to be built around two blocks from his home. Bloomington, a predominantly Hispanic community, already has a smog and fine particle pollution burden higher than 95 percent of census tracts nationwide.

“[The Inland Empire] is one of the biggest warehouse hot spots in the country, and it’s getting worse [because] more and more warehouses are being built there, ”explains deSouza. There has been even more demand for warehouse space during the pandemic, as retailers look for more places to store excess inventory in order to meet consumer expectations for prompt delivery despite issues in the supply chain. ‘supply. The worsening warehouse pollution crisis, deSouza said, underscores the need to electrify trucks.

El-Hasan, the American Lung Association pediatrician, is worried about the disproportionate toll that pollution from ports and warehouses places on the most vulnerable – especially during a coronavirus pandemic that attacks the lungs. Low-income households near warehouses and ports are often more likely to walk or cycle to get around or keep windows open because they lack air conditioning, which he says could expose them to more than atmospheric pollution.

Blockages at overseas factories and domestic ports have started to ease in recent weeks, but supply chain problems are expected to persist until 2022. In a catch-22, even the efforts to reduce these delays could be bad news for people living with port pollution. In mid-October, the Biden administration decided to keep the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach open 24/7, alarming El-Hasan.

“So we don’t even have a lull in pollution,” he says. “There is going to be pollution there, nonstop, day and night, all the time.”


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