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Published March 1st, 2007 by Wade Graham

California’s San Pedro Bay ports form a vast metropolis of polluting cargo ships, trucks, and locomotives — a “diesel death zone,” say the neighbors, who are fighting back against the leviathan.

The Hudson School in West Long Beach looks like a typical California public school: a rectangle of perhaps 10 acres set in a quiet neighborhood of modest bungalow-type houses, with haphazard groupings of trailers (called temporary buildings even though they are manifestly permanent), broad lawns, and an asphalt playground bounded by chain-link fencing. On most days children of many colors play tetherball and basketball in the warm sun or sit at picnic tables shaded by tall pines, while overhead, gulls call and palm fronds rustle in the gentle breeze from the Pacific two miles away.

The breeze also brings the acrid taste of diesel exhaust and the stench of raw petroleum from the massive refineries that stretch for nearly half a mile toward the water. Just over the fence, beyond the tetherball courts, an endless double line of trucks — around 3,000 a day — creeps past on the Terminal Island Freeway, most of them hauling steel shipping containers into the Union Pacific rail yard that sprawls a few hundred yards from the Hudson School. Across the road, long trains piled with more containers, marked with block letters reading CHINA SHIPPING, HYUNDAI, YANG MING, and MAERSK, clank slowly along, and a locomotive pulling a line of black chemical tank cars idles. When the refinery nearby has to flare off more than the usual amount of gases, it calls ahead to the school and the students are kept inside. But on any other day there are no such precautions. And children get sick: The air can irritate eyes, noses, throats, and lungs and cause coughing, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Allergies and asthma attacks flare along with the pollution.

Long Beach is a harbor town. Its city-owned port is the second-largest in the nation, close behind the Port of Los Angeles, its immediate neighbor to the west, which is bounded by the communities of San Pedro and Wilmington at the southernmost tip of sprawling Los Angeles. Together they make up what would constitute the fifth-largest port in the world and the largest outside Asia, sharing a single, massive harbor embraced by an eight-mile-long breakwater curving out into San Pedro Bay. Inside is a prodigious landscape of infrastructure: 15,100 acres of land and water, interfingered with 60 miles of industrial waterfront bristling with cranes, ships, parking lots, roads, bridges, storage tanks, pipelines, warehouses, and rails. In 2005 the two ports handled nearly 5,800 ships that carried 40 percent of all the seaborne goods imported into the United States (some $300 billion worth), employing 500,000 people in Southern California and paying $22 billion in payroll and $7 billion in taxes.

All manner of traditional bulk cargo passes through: Oil, cars, salt, and steel come into the country while chemicals, plastics, gypsum, scrap metal, machinery, parts, lumber, cotton, and food go out. But most of the action is choreographed around the moving of boxes, the standardized containers that hold 90 percent of the cargo entering the harbor. At the San Pedro Bay ports, they hold mostly the cheap Asian consumer goods that have taken over the world’s markets. In 2005 the ports pushed 14 million 20-foot “container units” (many containers are actually 40 feet long) into the Los Angeles Basin, a vast, four-county coastal plain.

Forty thousand truck trips a day are needed to move the boxes from the docks and terminals along a circuit board of roads, highways, and bridges. Some head for the massive truck-to-train “intermodal” facility across from the Hudson School, where the containers are transferred to trains running north to the rail yards east of downtown Los Angeles. Others make their way to the narrow, choked Long Beach Freeway, I-710, which hugs the concrete channel of the San Gabriel River before branching out into the vast transportation matrix of the region. Half the cargo is absorbed here; the rest fans out across the country through the steel and asphalt circulatory system of distribution and consumption that sustains the U.S. economy. As an example, 60 percent of the imported goods shipped to the Chicago area come through Los Angeles.

The San Pedro Bay ports, abetted by interested governments, began investing heavily from 1960 on to capture market share in the new containerized global shipping business. In a region that has seen its leading postwar industries — aerospace, automobiles, shipbuilding, and other heavy manufacturing — gutted in the last few decades, this strategy has paid off handsomely. Shipping volume doubled from 1990 to 2000 and has nearly doubled again since. In 2005, volume was up 8 percent from 2004; in 2006, it rose another 10 percent.

A conceit of the New Economy is that it promises freedom from the smokestacks and sweatshops of the past two centuries. In some swaths of formerly industrial North America, factories have been replaced by Wal-Marts and FedEx vans. But this is only a local illusion, a magic trick of trade and geography, obscuring the underlying fact that the New Economy not only rests on the grimy, polluting old one but propagates, multiplies, and feeds it, spreading it around the world like a pandemic.

The off-shoring of manufacturing has moved some of the smokestacks away, but it has stoked countless new ones in the breakneck industrialization and urbanization of the developing world. And all that stuff made abroad has to be brought back to us, on demand, satisfying our ever-greater desire for speed and low cost. We click off our wishes on Web sites, setting in motion diesel engines by the tens of thousands: trucks, loaders, cranes, and locomotives, armadas of little smokestacks toiling to deliver us the goods. Ninety percent of international trade still moves by ship, as it has since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Ships ply the high seas between the developing and developed worlds, slipping easily through the spaces of oversight, rules, and responsibility. They typically burn bunker fuel, a form of low-grade diesel left over from the refining of gasoline and other diesels — literally the bottom of the barrel, with sulfur content 3,000 times higher than the fuel used in new diesel trucks. One large vessel burning bunker fuel generally emits as much exhaust as 12,000 cars.

At the San Pedro Bay ports, a ship can be unloaded and turned around in three or four days, all the while idling its auxiliary engines (called hoteling) to generate power and run equipment. Multiply this by 5,800 ships per year, then add the myriad tugs, barges, and smaller service and passenger vessels that throng the harbors, and you can begin to see the emissions volume from the boats alone. At the dock the containers are unloaded by a boy’s fever-dream menagerie of high-rise cranes and four-story forklifts (called top-handlers), then loaded onto trucks or flatcars, shunted into long trains by switching engines, and hauled off by locomotives — all of them diesel powered.

The twin ports now emit more pollution than the top 300 industrial sources and refineries in the Los Angeles Basin combined — in one of the leading power-generating and oil-refining regions of the country. The lion’s share comes from ships and boats, which release many times more pollution than all the power plants in Southern California put together.

The harborside communities of San Pedro, Wilmington, and West Long Beach are as variegated in ethnicity and national origin as any in intensely polyglot Los Angeles County. The crude machinery of twenty-first-century world trade presses up against people’s lives like a dirty storm surge. Jesse N. Marquez, a third-generation Wilmington native and an environmental activist, took me for a tour. Just blocks south of his house, a yellow bungalow on a quiet street, phalanxes of giant cranes and passing ships loom. At the edges of his and other residential neighborhoods, warehouses, refineries, petroleum storage tanks, and rail yards back up to houses and apartment buildings.

He told me that, in addition to the smoke, the smog, and the smell, noise and glare from huge overhead lights flood the area 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In unkempt storage yards, walls of empty containers, stacked up to four high, tower over backyards. Locomotives pass by pulling mile-long trains or idle, often for hours. And trucks are everywhere, some of the 15,000 short-haul rigs, nearly all of them decades old and heavily polluting, that pass by each day on choked freeways and access roads, or invade the side streets looking for a faster way onto the jammed 710, blocking traffic, getting stuck in narrow lanes, idling in front of the liquor store while their drivers look for a snack or a bathroom.

Marquez called it the diesel death zone. Driving behind the trucks, passing the refineries, you see and feel the smog and smoke clouds, you breathe sudden, inexplicable miasmas of chemical stench that vanish just as suddenly, your eyes sting and water, your head pings with sharp pains. In days bygone, harbors smelled of rotting fish, creosoted pilings, and the thousand dank or exotic odors of the goods that moved through them: tar, lumber, wheat, or spices. Now the only smells come from petroleum products and their combustion. “We’ve grown up with it to the point where we think it’s normal,” Marquez said. “But it’s not normal.”

The difference between diesel and ordinary exhaust is the soot — inky, greasy, visible particles emitted by typical diesel engines. Researchers have only recently learned that it is what we don’t see in these clouds that hurts us most: the fine particulates that make up 94 percent of diesel emissions, which are capable of penetrating deep into lung tissue and causing genetic and cellular damage. In addition to particulate matter, diesel exhaust contains volatile organic compounds like benzene and formaldehyde, as well as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, precursors to smog. It also contains arsenic, cadmium, dioxin, and mercury, among 40 cancer-causing substances.

Diesel exhaust is responsible for 71 percent of the cancer risk from air pollution in the state of California. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach account for more than 25 percent of the cancer-causing diesel exhaust in the region, and emissions have gone up at least 20 percent since 2001. Cancer risk maps show the results vividly: The susceptibility to cancer from air pollution is evident throughout the Los Angeles Basin, but it concentrates alarmingly around the ports, along freeways heavily used by container trucks, and in the inland warehouse and rail yard districts that are the trucks’ most frequent destinations. The California Air Resources Board released a report in 2006 that calculated the annual toll of premature deaths attributable to the movement of goods. The number was 2,400 statewide, or six deaths per day.

Damage from diesel exhaust, especially to the lungs, starts early in life. The Children’s Health Study, conducted by the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC), followed 1,800 children in 12 Southern California communities for eight years beginning in 1993. It found that exposure to vehicle exhaust increases the risk for asthma and retards lung development in children, perhaps permanently. The study also found that in health, as in real estate, location matters: The worst outcomes came in areas next to ports, freeways, and rail yards. Teenagers in polluted communities were five times as likely to have clinically low lung function as those in low-pollution areas.

“As we see more roads, traffic, and trucks, we’re seeing measurable changes in respiratory and cardiovascular function, both in children and in people we hadn’t thought of as susceptible before,” explained Ed Avol, professor of clinical medicine at USC’s Keck School and one of the principal investigators of the study.

Laura Rodriguez, a native of Mexico and mother of five who lives in North Long Beach, told me: “En Long Beach, no se salva” — no one is safe. She and her family have lived in several different locations here for seven years, some closer to the ports or I-710, some farther away. Now they live in a two-story house on a tree-shaded street whose quiet belies the hazards that stalk the community. Of all her children — Carla, 15; Juliana, 13; Zachary, 10; Jorge, 7; and Angela, 4 — only Zach has not been diagnosed with asthma. Carla, who was found to have asthma two years ago, often has attacks in the mornings. At Long Beach Polytechnic High School, she plays water polo in the indoor pool and runs track. She complains to her mother, “I’m tired. I can’t run like I used to.”

Rodriguez volunteers with the Long Beach Alliance for Children With Asthma, a grassroots community group that educates families about the health threats they face. She helps measure particulate levels and counts traffic on roads adjacent to local schools as part of USC’s ongoing study. She attends hearings before government agencies and speaks out. Above all, she keeps her house immaculately clean and tries to keep her children away from obvious sources of diesel soot. Still, she said wearily, “You can’t create a bubble. No matter where we go there are trucks and there’s pollution.”

As the Rodriguez family knows firsthand, the trade-offs of the New Economy are felt more painfully in some neighborhoods than in others. Ed Avol put it this way: “Everybody wants a better job and a plasma TV, but almost nobody thinks about the ramifications.”

The solution would seem straightforward: Clean up the smoke coming out of the stacks. It is, fundamentally, an air pollution problem, something with which California regulators have a lot of experience, starting with the mandated removal of lead from gasoline in the 1970s. Peter Greenwald, a senior policy adviser for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, one of seven regional subauthorities set up by the state to ensure compliance with air quality standards, believes that existing technologies can cut emissions related to the movement of goods by 90 percent or more. Requiring ships to use low-sulfur fuel would reduce their particulates by 60 percent, which translates to 35 percent of the port’s total.

Another big gain would come from requiring ships to “cold iron,” a naval term for plugging into dockside electrical power while loading and unloading. This would cut pollution by two-thirds if the replacement power was from a coal-fired plant, or up to 100 percent if it was from renewables. Yard equipment and locomotives can burn cleaner fuel and be outfitted with catalytic converters and particle filters, cutting their emissions by up to 90 percent. Rail lines can be extended right to the dockside, eliminating the short-haul trucks, usually the dirtiest and oldest available, that bring the boxes to the intermodal yard. Trucks, responsible for 40 percent of the nitrogen oxides and 31 percent of the particulates from ports, could be required to use cleaner fuel and engines, just as has been done with gasoline car engines, under California’s leadership.

But putting the diesel genie back inside the bottle turns out to be vexingly complex because of the structure of the business itself. First, it is international: Ships can freely travel from the sleek, modern quaysides of Rotterdam and Singapore to the outlaw docks of Mogadishu and back again. Problems of legal jurisdiction and political will, to say nothing of antiquated machinery, abound.

Second, the U.S. shipping business is widely dispersed geographically. There are 86 ports in this country, no two operating under the same regulatory controls. Most ports, such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, make no effort to curtail diesel pollution, even though the effects on local communities may be severe; their larger home regions are not in violation of federal air quality standards and thus haven’t triggered pollution reduction mandates (with the accompanying threat of lost federal highway dollars for failure to clean up). Southern California, which still has the worst air quality in the nation, perpetually struggles to meet its mandated targets. Ports compete with one another for business, and giving companies a pass on pollution can be a major, if perverse, incentive.

Third, ports are an unusual hybrid of government and business. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are city-owned, and each is under the nominal control of a mayor and city council, yet they are semi-autonomous in matters of policy and finance. (Most West Coast ports are run by cities, while most ports in the East and the South are run by regional, sometimes interstate, authorities.) Port agencies function as landlords, making their money by leasing docks and terminals to shippers and terminal operators; most of their net income goes back into the port rather than into a city’s general fund. Ports are public businesses promoting private economic development as a public good, making questions of accountability and oversight especially tricky.

Finally, the structure of the business is Byzantine. In addition to the port agencies, there are terminal operators, shipping companies, manufacturers (some of which, such as South Korea’s Hyundai, own their own ships), railroads, depot and storage yard operators, trucking companies (split between big, corporate long-haul operations and mom-and-pop short haulers), distributors, and retailers.

The business tangle mirrors the regulatory system — balkanized by overlapping federal, state, regional, and local jurisdictions. Although the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are subject to the environmental standards of 72 federal, state, and local agencies, the current situation is a result of near-total regulatory failure. Those rules that exist are often weak and poorly enforced by agencies that face determined resistance to oversight from the industry. The one agency with the direct ability to affect change, and in many cases holding a monopoly on regulatory authority, is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But the EPA has been characteristically lax, especially under the current administration. While it recently adopted a standard for ship fuel for domestically flagged vessels, it has been reluctant to touch foreign-flagged ships — the vast majority — arguing that it lacks authority over “international” commerce. (The administration has not been so shy when it comes to policing international financial transactions and communications, nor in putting customs agents in foreign ports to deter illicit cargo.) After much pressure, and 10 years of delays, the EPA implemented adequate standards for non-marine diesel fuel and new truck engines during the last six months, but it will not come out with even minimal standards for new locomotives for another year. None of these rules address the hundreds of thousands of engines now on the roads and rails with decades of service left.

Noel Park, now 63, moved from the Westside of Los Angeles to San Pedro in 1965, when it was a declining fishing port with only scattered freight traffic. Since then, he has raised two sons, grown his vintage Corvette business — and watched the ports gobble up swaths of the harbor with landfill islands.

The ports kept expanding. Park recalls picking up a local newspaper in 2000 and reading an article that mentioned that California — 10 years earlier, in 1990 — had officially listed diesel exhaust as a cancer-causing agent. Stirred, finally, by a sense of betrayal and long-simmering anger, he and his neighbors mobilized the San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners Coalition, of which he became president. It was just one of many grassroots groups that sprang up in the region to counter what residents saw as the goods-movement industry’s assault on their communities.

“We finally woke up and started reading these reports,” Park said. Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs), prepared as part of the permitting process for port expansion, are required by California law. Park said he read “dozens” of EIRs, all of which listed no “significant” environmental impacts from glare, noise, traffic, or congestion — only air pollution, which, thanks to the steady stream of public health studies being released, could not be concealed. He and his neighbors went to hearings before the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, which sets policy for the port, and spoke out. They were repeatedly brushed aside by port and city officials. “They just chant this mantra: ‘It’s the engine of the economy, it creates all these jobs,’ ” he recounted. In other words, economic growth was a greater concern than public health.

In a narrow legal sense, the officials were on firm ground. The California Environmental Quality Act allows an entity proposing a project, such as a port agency, to determine whether “overriding considerations” put the public benefits of the project, including economic growth, above the detrimental impacts. Historically, ports had made precisely this claim, and expansion projects went forward. ” ‘Overriding considerations’ to us means that the port and its tenants need to make money,” Park said, “and if a few of us die, tough sh-t.”

In 2001 several harbor-area community groups, including Park’s, approached the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Coalition for Clean Air, which had both become interested in the issue of ports pollution, to see what could be done to stop or at least slow a huge new container terminal being built at the Port of Los Angeles. It was no small project: turning a dirt lot at the base of a hill just north of downtown San Pedro, previously used to store containers, into a 174-acre terminal for the China Shipping Co., part of a multibillion-dollar international conglomerate. It would bring 150 ships and a million truck trips a year plus locomotives, yard engines, cranes, bright lights, and around-the-clock noise into what had been a relatively quiet corner of the harbor, close against residential neighborhoods.

The port was so accustomed to acting without community consultation that it hadn’t even done an EIR — in effect claiming that the expansion would have no adverse environmental impacts. “They just skipped that step altogether,” said Julie Masters, an attorney and former director of the clean air program in NRDC’s Santa Monica office. Unconvinced by the port’s position, community and environmental groups together challenged the permit process, first in state court, then federal, but were repeatedly thwarted. All the while the port kept building. Finally in 2002, a state appellate court stopped construction — though the project was nearly half finished — until an EIR was prepared.

The decision was a huge victory: No court in the United States had ever before stopped a major port expansion. Still, Masters and her team knew that the port could declare “overriding considerations” and eventually proceed. The delay would be costly, however, so the port had reason to negotiate. “We sat down with the port and the city and talked settlement,” Masters said.

They struck a deal: The port could continue to operate the 75 acres it had already built; in return, it would pay $50 million over four years for environmental mitigation, as well as switch equipment to clean fuels and electrify the docks for 70 percent of the ships to plug in at the terminal. Within a few years, China Shipping had converted 17 of its vessels to cold ironing, the first shipping company in the world to use this technology for its container vessels. Last year 71 percent of the firm’s vessels calling in Los Angeles plugged in, reducing the emission of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter for each ship by one ton per day.

In 2002, the same coalition challenged an expansion plan at the Port of Long Beach on the grounds that the EIR the port had filed was inadequate. The Long Beach City Council kicked the application back to the port for a new EIR.

The unprecedented stoppages served notice that harbor communities could no longer be ignored by the ports or the shipping industry. Companies “see the writing on the wall,” said Port of Long Beach spokesman Art Wong. “They know that if they don’t support these kinds of changes, the public will turn against them.” The outcome also demonstrated that alternative technologies such as cold ironing and clean-fuel yard equipment could be embraced by industry. At China Shipping’s terminal, the manic dance of machines unleashed whenever a vessel is unloaded and loaded again is startling for what it lacks: smoke. A ship plugged into a small barge festooned with cables spews no black clouds, nor do cranes, trucks, and top-handlers running on clean fuels. The air is markedly more breathable than at other port terminals.

On the other hand, the victories were limited: No other terminals were affected; the ports and their tenants simply delayed expansion plans and continued to increase traffic by becoming more efficient and adding nighttime working hours. Five years later, neither port had completed the mandated EIR, yet total business was still on target to triple by 2020 and container throughput to quadruple by 2025. And the ports were already bursting at the seams. In the summer and fall of 2004 a spectacular bottleneck of ships waiting to unload filled San Pedro Bay outside the harbor, with as many as 50 vessels stacked up at a time, each one sending a plume of smoke skyward as it idled.

With pressure visibly mounting, the state government and the ports drafted their own plans to roll back pollution to 2001 levels and triple trade traffic by 2020, a heroic achievement even in the imagination. The plans included a laundry list of mostly sensible technical fixes — using cleaner marine fuel, scrubbing ship stacks, cold ironing, replacing 12,000 short-haul trucks, retrofitting locomotives, expanding roads — all good solutions, but not very meaningful without mandatory controls or a means to pay for it all.

Then, in the summer of 2006, legislation drafted by State Senator Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach seemed to offer a solution. The bill proposed a $30 fee per container at the ports, which would generate $500 million a year to be split among security, infrastructure expansion, and air quality improvements. This would amount to just 0.77 percent of the goods-movement industry’s annual net of $64.7 billion but would substantially contribute to the $400 million to $667 million annual cost of the emission reductions recommended by the California Air Resources Board in its 2004 report on ports pollution.

Business groups protested: The California Chamber of Commerce called the bill a “job killer.” The National Retail Federation warned that it might push shippers elsewhere, to Canada or Mexico. To which David Freeman, chairman of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, replied: “They’re whistling Dixie.” Freeman knows there are no other ports in the hemisphere big enough to handle anywhere near the volume of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The industry, Freeman added, ought to get ready for change: “This is all going to happen, and it’s not going to have a huge impact on the price of goods.” The billions of dollars it would cost over five or ten years, he said, works out to “two cents on a pair of tennis shoes.”

The Lowenthal bill passed, but only barely; then, last fall, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. Local proponents of the bill, such as Laura Rodriguez, were left feeling frustrated and “impotent,” in her words. “Sometimes I think that nothing we do counts.” Rodriguez attended a recent Long Beach City Council hearing where officials discussed 10 expansion proposals for port-related facilities. She wishes she could move to Big Bear Lake, a piney ski town in the San Bernardino Mountains, 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, where her children might breathe more easily.

Noel Park, also disillusioned after years of fighting the ports’ plans, decided recently to move 10 miles west to the Palos Verdes peninsula, where, according to the cancer risk map he carried around while house-hunting, the air is somewhat cleaner. “I swore to God I was going to live my life out in that house,” he said. “I’ve lived here 38 years.” Most of all, he was saddened by the implications of his own departure: “Anyone who takes the trouble to understand the issues leaves. And who’s left behind? The people who can’t leave. Well, God have mercy on them. If that’s not environmental injustice, I don’t know what is.”



Published October 1st, 2005 by Wade Graham

Governor Schwarzenegger could teach other Republicans a thing or two about protecting the environment. That is, if he doesn’t self-destruct first. 

On June 1, this past spring, I got to glimpse a day in the life of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California. That afternoon, at City Hall in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom was hosting United Nations World Environment Day, the U.N.’s equivalent of Earth Day. In a huge, high-ceilinged room, ranks of state officials and big-city mayors from six continents sat onstage, while several hundred invited guests and nearly half again as many members of the press waited for the governor to appear and kick off the event.

Outside on the square, a small fleet of prototype hydrogen cars was parked, attended by banners, blaring music, and clots of PR people ready to answer questions. All of the major German and Japanese auto companies were represented, each with a small minivan. Ford was there, with its 2006 low-emission Focus sedan. So was General Motors, with its massive, military-style hydrogen Hummer, developed expressly for Schwarzenegger — emblematic, perhaps, of the governor’s clunky evolution from Conan the Barbarian to environmental statesman.

After making the dignitaries and press rabble wait for an hour, the governor arrived and proceeded to announce a groundbreaking global-warming initiative. “I say, the debate is over,” he boomed, explicitly dismissing the Bush administration’s contrary position. “We know the science, we see the threat, and we know the time for action is now.” The targets he set were impressive, going beyond what even the Kyoto treaty would mandate: By 2010 California’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced to 2000 levels; by 2020 reduced to 1990 levels; and by 2050 reduced to 80 percent below 1990 levels. Then the governor sat down at a Lilliputian desk and signed an executive order. The crowd erupted in a standing ovation.

But before the applause died down, a stir of chanting and hooting was heard from a picket line of 50 or 60 nurses, many of them men got up in outrageous drag (this being San Francisco), carrying signs and marching in a circle, chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Schwarzenegger’s got to go!” As the doors were opened to the grand rotunda, where a reception had been prepared with smiling hostesses, tables piled high with hors d’oeuvres, and bartenders pouring wine, the nurses burst into the building and swirled up the staircases into the upstairs galleries, their chanting echoing off the walls. Below, prominent environmentalists nibbled shrimp and smiled somewhat uncertainly. An R&B band began to play as loudly as it could, but the musicians couldn’t possibly drown out the political ruckus threatening to engulf Schwarzenegger’s remaining term as governor.

The beginning was full of promise. Six weeks after announcing his candidacy in a special election in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger released an “Action Plan for California’s Environment” that startled Democrats and Republicans alike. It was a remarkable document by any measure; the final draft proposed to invest in clean energy and technology, including hybrid and hydrogen vehicles, to implement greenhouse gas emissions rules, and to resist the Bush administration’s push to gut power-plant pollution controls and to lift a longstanding moratorium on offshore oil drilling. It also committed the state to some major, quantified goals, especially on air pollution and electricity: to cut power consumption by 20 percent by some undetermined date, to reduce air pollution by up to 50 percent by 2010, to see 50 percent of new housing developments install solar panels by 2005, and to generate 20 percent of public power from renewable sources, such as wind, solar, and geothermal, by 2010 (seven years in advance of the timetable established by the Democratic incumbent, Governor Gray Davis).

In addition to the pollution and energy provisions, his plan also contained a laundry list of other goals long sought by the state’s environmental advocates: more mass transit, more green buildings, more inner-city parks. It could have been written by an enviro — a liberal and visionary one. It was.

In the late morning of World Environment Day, before traveling to San Francisco for his global warming announcement, the governor briefed me on the genesis of his environmental platform. We sat outside, under a tent furnished with chairs, a low table, and an ashtray for his cigars, on the otherwise empty roof terrace of the Hyatt hotel in Sacramento, directly across the street from the Capitol. During the workweek, Schwarzenegger not only occupies a large suite in the hotel, which he pays for himself, but also works here to escape the Capitol, with its low ceilings and hallways densely packed with police officers, tourists, and schoolchildren on field trips. When he first took office, he had a tent put up in the courtyard of the Capitol so that he could enjoy his cigars. But Democratic legislators with office windows on the courtyard complained about the smoke and even threatened to pass a law extending the required smoking distance from the building — which the governor threatened to veto in a move that reflected his deteriorating relationship with the Democratic-controlled legislature. His new tent atop the Hyatt looks at the Capitol dome, but mostly beyond it, into the milky summer haze of the Sacramento Valley.

Schwarzenegger has long been close to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a first cousin of the governor’s wife, Maria Shriver. According to Schwarzenegger, soon after he announced his candidacy for governor, Bobby Kennedy called him and said, “Look, I think it would be good if you, as a Republican, would talk about the environment. You’d be much more effective than us Democrats” — more effective, presumably, in reaching across traditional partisan lines and advancing environmental goals among the business community and other constituencies that are generally Republican allies. Besides, both men knew that any Republican hoping to win the governorship of California would have to reassure its heavily Democratic, proenvironment electorate of his bona fides. Kennedy suggested that Schwarzenegger call Terry Tamminen, then the director of the Santa Monica-based foundation Environment Now. “Call this guy,” Kennedy told him. “He will come over and work with you.”

Terry Tamminen boasts a very eclectic career: He has at various times been a ship captain, the manager of a sheep ranch and a real estate company, a recycling consultant for the government of Nigeria, and the owner of a pool maintenance company in Malibu. He’s written The Ultimate Pool Maintenance Manual and, according to his official state bio, several theatrical works on the life of William Shakespeare. He flies planes and helicopters and speaks German, Dutch, and Spanish. In Malibu, he met some environmentally inclined people who helped him found the Santa Monica Baykeeper; he ran the organization for six years before taking the helm of Environment Now in 1999.

Tamminen and Schwarzenegger hit it off: “I loved working with this guy,” the governor told me. “He explained everything in kind of simple terms.” Tamminen spent part of a day at the Schwarzeneggers’ house with the governor, his wife, and the couple’s four children, all of whom weighed in on the issues. After their discussions, Schwarzenegger and Tamminen agreed that “the trick is, how do you encourage businesses to grow and at the same time take care of the environment,” in Schwarzenegger’s words. He asked Tamminen to fill in the details and write the “Action Plan,” and gives him full credit for the vision it lays out: “This is really all Terry’s thing. I’m there basically to say, ‘Yes, these are great ideas,’ and put my stamp of approval on it.” The ideas Tamminen brought to him, Schwarzenegger admitted, “may have been things that I’d never even heard about. I was really never out there fighting for those causes until I started running for office.”

It was a case of recognizing political expediency, certainly, although Schwarzenegger tried to persuade me that the roots of his environmentalism reach deep into his past. He was receptive to Tamminen’s ideas, he told me, because of the connections he makes in his own mind between fitness and a healthy environment. To him, the constant quest for improvement that bodybuilding requires applies in some sense equally to the human body and the natural world. Such a notion doesn’t seem too outlandish in Southern California.

He also pointed to his childhood in the picturesque village of Thal in the mountains of eastern Austria. To earn a living, many of his relatives worked in a steel mill in the nearby industrial city of Graz, “where every day when you wiped the windows your whole towel filled with a black substance on it because the factory was right in the middle of town.” The river that runs through Graz, the Mur, he remembered, “was considered one of the dirtiest rivers in middle Europe.” Gradually, over the past four decades, awareness of these issues became more acute in Austria, prompting people to work “very aggressively to clean up the environment,” Schwarzenegger told me. “When I was a kid, you couldn’t see the bottom of that river. Now you can.”

In Austria these days, environmental protection is an issue of national pride, not of left or right, and all politicians are of necessity proenvironment. Schwarzenegger’s views would make him a fairly typical right-of-center politician in Austria.

The governor spoke often about the need to govern from the center, about finding a balance between environmental protection and economic growth. When I asked him what he thought the most important factor was in advancing the environmental agenda, he answered in one word: “Redistricting.” This is one of the core reform proposals he’s placed on a special-election ballot slated for November 8, when he will put to direct vote his proposition for moving the power to redraw districts from the legislature to a panel of retired judges. “We have to blend the two parties together,” he said. “That is, I think, the fundamental change that has to happen — to bring people to the middle.” Yet the election itself has become bitterly divisive and partisan.

In our conversation, he cited a credo that I would think about often in the coming days: “The trick with politics is that you walk the tightrope. If you step too far to the right you fall, if you step too far to the left you fall.”

After his election, Schwarzenegger named Terry Tamminen the head of the California Environmental Protection Agency. Out of the gate, the Schwarzenegger administration got to work on its environmental agenda. The governor, for instance, has vigorously defended the state’s authority to regulate CO2 emissions, which has been challenged by an auto industry suit. Schwarzenegger signed legislation that would help various state agencies better coordinate ocean protection as well as regulate fisheries, cruise ship pollution, and water quality. He also collaborated with the state legislature in passing a number of air quality bills, including one that provides funding to replace older, polluting diesel engines. He sponsored a Million Solar Homes bill to increase California’s total solar energy output from 101 megawatts to 3,000 megawatts by 2018, and ordered the state government, the largest power user, to increase its own energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2015. A 25-million-acre Sierra Nevada Conservancy was established, and the governor signed bills favored by environmental groups on pesticide drift, water quality standards for the San Francisco Bay, and allowing high-mileage hybrid vehicles in freeway carpool lanes. By executive order, Schwarzenegger inaugurated a California Hydrogen Highway Network initiative to build 200 hydrogen filling stations along California’s major freeways, linking the south to the north.

The hydrogen plan was typical of Schwarzenegger: bold, visionary, and long range, not requiring much pain in the short term. The program itself reflects his and Tamminen’s conviction (there often seems no clear way to tell the two apart) that environmental policy ought to be a kind of industrial policy, aimed at stimulating technological innovation and, through it, economic growth. Still, the governor acknowledged to me that the Hydrogen Highways plan is as much political theater as it is policy: “selling the idea,” as he put it. “It’s a motivational thing: Build hydrogen fueling stations, because that will motivate Detroit and other manufacturers around the world. They’ll say, ‘[California is] taking this seriously.’ ” 
In Japan last year on a promotional tour for California products and tourism, Schwarzenegger sat down with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who agreed that Japan and California should work together to realize a hydrogen economy. Although the two men made no formal agreement, the governor took this as an endorsement by Koizumi of Schwarzenegger’s Japanese-style shaping of advanced industrial development through a combination of incentives and regulation. And the governor was duly impressed when Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber of the German state of Bavaria arrived in California last year with a 50-person delegation, including “all the top industrialists in the car business. This stuff is going on,” he said, “because they all look at us as serious players, even though it’s more noise right now than actual substance. The substance will come from each station we build.”

But in that same first year, Schwarzenegger vetoed a slew of bills favored by environmentalists, including 10 that had been labeled as “job-killer” bills by the state Chamber of Commerce, and signed many bills favored by business lobbies. He let the federal Bureau of Reclamation renew 25-year farm water contracts for the gargantuan Central Valley Project at existing grossly subsidized rates without input from environmentalists.

Advocates such as Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), credit Terry Tamminen with maintaining open lines of communication, even in the face of strong pressures put on the governor by business lobbies and more conservative members of his administration. “He hasn’t been an apologist for Schwarzenegger,” Reynolds said of Tamminen. “He’s been fighting the good fight. And that hasn’t dimmed his stature in the governor’s eyes; he just promoted him” — from head of the state Environmental Protection Agency to cabinet secretary, overseeing the entire executive branch. Whether this move will strengthen Tamminen’s voice or distract him remains to be seen. When I spoke with Tamminen he acknowledged that it was a challenge to go from worrying about air pollution to worrying, in addition, about the prison system, health care, and law enforcement.

In any case, Tamminen’s is clearly not the only voice the governor listens to. In its 2004 environmental scorecard, the California League of Conservation Voters gave the governor only a 58 percent proenvironment score for his first year in office. (By comparison, Governor Davis received 100 percent in 2003.) Ann Notthoff, NRDC’s director of California advocacy, notes that the league’s rating looked at only one piece of the governor’s record — the bills that reached his desk. A governor is also accountable for appointments to his admininstration, executive orders, and legal actions. “He made solid progress during his first year by making several good appointments,” says Notthoff. “But this year has been a different story.”

Indeed, several recent developments have especially alarmed environmentalists. In July, the governor cut $40 million from programs for coastal protection, salmon and trout restoration, and parks, among others. More troubling has been the feeling that the governor has lately caved in to business lobbies in making key appointments to state and regional regulatory boards, quasi-independent bodies that wield enormous authority in California. This summer, two appointments in particular raised flags. Ron Nehring, the San Diego GOP chairman and protégé of antitax activist Grover Norquist, was named to the state board of forestry and fire protection, in spite of his lack of expertise in either matter. Of even greater concern to environmentalists was the appointment of Cindy Tuck to the chairmanship of the state air resources board, an 11-person commission that Notthoff calls “arguably the most influential environmental board in the country.” Tuck is a former lobbyist for the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance, a business group that has opposed many of the major air quality measures passed in the state.

Schwarzenegger’s governorship has been rife with political contradictions from the beginning. The task he set for himself of balancing competing constituencies would mean, practically speaking, giving enough goodies to each one to keep it in his coalition — or at least to not oppose him. Courting environmentalists may have been a brilliant early way to help neutralize those to the left of him on other questions, such as taxes, pensions, and education. But it couldn’t work for long, and environmentalists expect him to continue the good works throughout his tenure, not turn to soothe other anxious factions. The farther into his term he goes, the more precarious the balancing act becomes — and the farther he has to fall if he slips off the tightrope.

These questions could all become moot in the face of a much larger problem: what appears to be a rapid process of political self-destruction, as dramatic as his ascent, and all the more startling for its seeming utter avoidability.

After his landslide victory, Schwarzenegger’s approval rating polled in the high 60s. Democrats and labor unions, still in the majority but gun-shy, realized they had to work with him. The governor, meanwhile, made good on one of his most popular campaign promises — rescinding Governor Davis’s “car tax” on motor vehicle registrations. This added billions of dollars to the budget deficits he inherited. Schwarzenegger stubbornly resisted any new tax increases to raise revenue and instead looked to the big public-employee unions to cover the shortfall with concessions on wages and pensions. Taking an unusually (and, most observers thought, misguidedly) aggressive tack, the governor loudly called nurses, teachers, firefighters, and police officers “special interests” on TV. The unions responded with outrage and a barrage of TV ads of their own.

Sacramento slid backward from the politics of governing to full-time campaign mode. But Arnold’s playing his Terminator role after the election didn’t thrill the public or cow his opponents the way it had during the heated circus of the recall. The teachers, nurses, and cops — groups the public finds highly sympathetic — skillfully turned his rhetoric against him. By January of this year his approval rating had dropped to 59 percent. By April it had sunk to 49 percent, and most voters, even Republicans, agreed with the statement: “He should be putting more effort into working with legislators so he’d get more done.”

Instead, Schwarzenegger did the opposite, calling for the November 8 special election and infuriating his opponents. The legislature, stripped by term limits of veterans and controlled by a young, left-wing Democratic caucus led by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, has countered the governor’s every move with one of its own — even when Schwarzenegger’s proposals have unquestioned merit, such as a bill to require schools to serve California-grown fruit, which was pettily squashed by the Democratic leadership. Indeed, the day before the San Francisco World Environment Day event, Democratic legislators in Sacramento held a press conference, attacking in advance the Schwarzenegger global warming plan for not spelling out enforceable measures. However, since the legislators essentially agreed with his goals and didn’t offer significantly different policies, the stunt got little notice.

This chaos was worrying to those people, in California and elsewhere, who had seen in Schwarzenegger’s election the best chance in years to pull the Republican Party back to the center. Just as the Schwarzenegger administration finished out a pretty good first year, it seemed as though the partisan warfare in Sacramento could stop the bipartisan environmental agenda cold.

And it is the relationship between the governor and the legislature — currently abysmal — that will ultimately determine whether progress on the environmental front continues, is stymied, or is reversed. Mary Nichols, who was resources secretary under Gray Davis, explained to me just how limited the governor’s power is: He can sign executive orders, but, “if it requires spending any money or regulating anything or enforcing anything, you still need the legislature.

“Clearly environmental interest in this state is very high, and any governor can engage the public attention and get good press and overcome other obstacles by focusing on those issues,” Nichols continued. “I don’t think it was an accident that the global warming policy was unveiled at the same time as he was taking a beating over the special election that he’s called. It’s a way of getting people talking about something that you want them to talk about.”

While the appeal of his environmental platform to moderates and liberals helped Schwarzenegger get elected, it may not be enough to help him escape his current quagmire. A new poll released in July by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California showed that a majority of Californians supported Schwarzenegger’s policies: 69 percent favored the greenhouse gas targets he announced in San Francisco; 76 percent favored his solar energy initiative; 83 percent favored requiring carmakers to improve fuel efficiency — and 73 percent would pay more for such vehicles. But this huge support for his specific environmental policies did not translate into an overall perception that he is proenvironment: Just 32 percent of Californians polled said they liked his environmental record as a whole, while 35 percent disapproved. His overall job approval kept sinking, from a May low of 40 percent, to 34 percent in July — the same as President Bush’s. In other words, not only did the governor’s very public proenvironment stands not help him, but they didn’t even register as proenvironment. The poll data are perplexing, but they suggest that Governor Schwarzenegger, ironically, has the same problem Governor Davis did: While most Californians liked his policies, they didn’t like him.

It is equally hard to fathom the logic behind the governor’s recent appointments. It may be that the more conservative members of his strategy team are counseling him, presumably against the advice of Terry Tamminen, that the moderate, proenvironment stands have cost more than they were worth and that he must make up ground with the GOP base. In California, this base isn’t religious conservatives, it’s big business — which can deliver money, though it can’t deliver votes.

It may also be, sadly, simply bad judgment. Pundits have taken to calling the governor’s strategy team “the gang that can’t shoot straight” for its ineptitude and uncanny ability to misjudge the public mood. Fresh setbacks have rained on Schwarzenegger nearly weekly since the poll. A scandal erupted when the press questioned the propriety of his multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts with American Media Inc., which owns several bodybuilding magazines — publications that advertise the kinds of nutritional supplements whose regulation he vetoed. He was forced to cancel the deals. The November 8 special ballot he called hasn’t been a hit either. In the latest poll, 54 percent of the public remains opposed to the special election, and 51 percent says that the state is headed in the wrong direction.

It seems clear that Schwarzenegger is unlikely to retreat too much from, much less abandon, his environmental commitments — they are the last point of common ground he shares with majorities of both voters and legislators in Sacramento. It also seems clear that the Schwarzenegger saga proves again that no politician can be elected governor in California without moderate-to-liberal positions on a set of core issues, the environment foremost among them. Whoever succeeds Arnold Schwarzenegger will carry on the state’s tradition of leadership on environmental governance.

But if in the next election Schwarzenegger is thrown out in favor of a traditional, reliably green Democrat, the environmental agenda in California will certainly be less vulnerable to shifting political winds than it has been during his tenure.

On the other hand, progress on the national front might be better served if Arnold the Republican environmentalist managed to succeed: In doing so, he might weaken the core opposition of the national GOP and give environmental issues some purchase in the Red states where they are now effectively suppressed by being identified with the Democratic Party.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failures, as much as his successes and his progressive environmental visions, can best be explained by his determination to “govern from the center” — which has meant, in practice, taking politically expedient stands across a spectrum so wide as to be incoherent, even contradictory. In the end, we are left looking at the Hydrogen Hummer: clean and green, we are told, but still a pretty incongruous hunk of machinery.