Port Commissioner Gael Tarelton’s was elected in 2007 to spearhead the progressive reform of the Port. So why is Tarelton acting like a press flack for reform opponent Port CEO Tay Yoshitani?

Click over to Tarelton’s website and you’ll find a glowing report on the Port’s clean trucks program (one of the sites few updates since she took office). I’ve written about this initiative extensively, and it definitely does not deserve glowing accolades, especially from a supposed progressive. This unwarranted praise is in striking contrast to the community leaders (from McDermott to local church groups) who have been devoting their time and influence to a national reform which would remove the restrictions on the ambitious progressive proposal to require employers to take responsibility for both their employees and their environmental impact.

For those who haven’t been keeping up, the program seeks scrap the oldest, dirtiest vehicles (pre-1994) from the port’s trucking fleet—which will be banned by the beginning of 2011 anyway—and offers the drivers remuneration to go towards a (barely) newer truck. In short, the onus of the port’s environmental efforts falls on low-income drivers, not those who could actually afford to clean up the port in a serious fashion. Unfortunately, until national reform passes the current clean trucks plan all is all Seattle has, but any word of praise should be heavily qualified.

Tarelton’s press release offers no qualifications, just pure, unmitigated praise (she calls it “great progress"). The statement reads like Port PR (which makes sense, since she votes with the port the vast majority of the time), and like all good PR, it fudges the facts a little.

The release claims: (the closer to 2007, the better)

“The new trucks will emit 60-80 percent less air pollution, resulting in immediate benefits for communities around the Port of Seattle.”

The reality is much more complicated. First of all, the Port is working with incomplete information. According to the Clean Air Agency, the data available for tracking the year of the “surrendered trucks” and the year of the replacement model is incomplete. Of the 100+ scrapped trucks data is only available for 94 of them, and 40 of those 94 have not reported the replacement year. The replacement year is important because newer trucks pollute less, thus the Port cannot accurately predict the reduced level of pollution if it doesn't have the necessary data.

The statement also assumes all of the new trucks will be closer to the ideal 2007 models (which pollute significantly less) and that they will be outfitted with worthwhile filters. But of the fifty trucks the Clean Air Agency has the info on, none have been outfitted with adequate filters. These trucks have only been evaluated for "passive filter" models, which are designed for long-haul truckers and don’t function at full capacity under short-haul conditions, compromising their effectiveness. They also clog easily, putting more stress on a truck’s engine, which is most likely overburdened as it is, given how cash-strapped most drivers are. Of the port trucks that have been given filters, all of them have been of this inadequate passive variety. (The Cunningham Report, a trade and transportation newsletter, recently reported, largely behind a pay wall, on port trucker dissatisfaction with the passive filters which lead to the Mayor of Oakland’s condemnation of the model.)

The Port is trying to play off the older replacement trucks, with passive filters, as the equivalent of new, 2007-model trucks. But 2007 trucks expel around one-third of the nitrous oxides of a 2002 truck fit with a passive filter, and less than a tenth of the diesel particulates.

The release also praises:

“...the Port's clean truck and other clean air programs combined, the PSCAA estimates that this will remove nearly 1.5 tons of fine diesel particles from the air in and around the port annually.”

Actually, the clean trucks program doesn’t contribute to the cleanup much at all. The heavy lifting is done by the "other clean air programs": the replacement of diesel cranes with electronic ones or the payoffs to cargo ships to ensure the use of low sulfur fuel while docked in Seattle.

These claims, and others like them, don't completely hold up. If the claims don’t really hold up, why is Tarelton putting them out there right now? Specifically, why is she putting them out there just as the national reform issue starts to heat up? (The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is expected to address the issue this spring.) Why is she making excuses for the Port, when she was elected to do the opposite?