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Choppy Waters: Competition, Environmental Impacts Trouble L.A.'s Harbors

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Every day, giant cranes at the twin ports of Los Angeles (4,300 acres) and Long Beach (3,200 acres) reach over the piled decks of cargo ships, transferring containers to trucks waiting below on the pier. Those cranes lifted 14.6 million containers last year, a 3.4 percent increase from the year before.

Currently, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach handle about 40 percent of the nation's entire containerized trade from Asia. Good-paying, blue-collar jobs depend on that trade, estimated to be between 800,000 and 900,000 workers at the ports and in warehousing and transport elsewhere in Southern California and the West.

But that's likely to change should the gloomier predictions of the LA 2020 Commission come true.

Smaller ports in Mexico and Canada are taking business from California ports already. And shippers are expected to send more container cargo to Gulf Coast and eastern ports when a widened Panama Canal opens in 2015. The stiffening competition could drain working-class jobs from Los Angeles County and dampen the region's slow economic recovery.

Competition has led both Long Beach and Los Angeles to begin spending billions on expanding port facilities -- $4 billion at the Port of Long Beach, $1.2 billion at the Port of Los Angeles.

The need to give the ports a new direction is peaking just when both ports must find new executive directors. The recruitment process to replace L.A. port executive Geraldine Knatz, who retired at the end of last year, is currently underway. Recruitment to find a replacement for Long Beach executive Christopher Lytle, who left in July to lead the Port of Oakland, is only beginning. City hall politics delayed both job searches.

Competition isn't the only challenge the ports' new leaders will face. Port expansion plans have inevitably become controversial, even as both ports try to address the environmental effects of goods handling. Despite some improvements and the promise of more, neighborhoods in San Pedro and Wilmington aren't satisfied that the risks of breathing the fumes of diesel trucks and ship's boilers will be fully mitigated.

Also, the demand for greater efficiency at the ports has run up against union work rules and political pressure for more jobs and higher wages. At the Los Angeles port, efforts to change trucking operations have resulted in lawsuits and claims that trucking companies operate as "sweatshops on wheels." Recession here and turmoil in Mexico have dried up the ports' cruise business, cutting revenue.

As soon as they're appointed, new executive directors for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will have to find answers for these problems even as they negotiate with each other over objections to each other's port expansion plans.

New "captains" of the ports can expect squalls and choppy seas ahead.

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