On a mid-June morning on the steps of Newark’s City Hall, community activists, labor organizers, and politicians gathered to demand that the Port Authority finally do right by the people of Newark. “Employ Us, Don’t Poison Us,” read the handmade signs, as Ras Baraka, midway through his second year as mayor of one of the poorest cities in New Jersey, took the lectern.
“We have been fighting the Port Authority around several things, like employment and jobs, and getting our financial due from the land that we own,” Baraka told the crowd, as a truck honked its horn loudly nearby. “But we’re here today to talk about the environmental injustice that goes on in our city as well.”
In May, the Village Voice reported on the Port Authority’s failed truck replacement program, aimed at reducing toxic emissions and clearing the chronic smog pollution plaguing communities in Newark and Elizabeth that surround the Port Newark shipping lanes. The exhaust levels are so high here that Newark children suffer breathing problems at rates higher than nearly anywhere else in the nation. The program had promised to replace more than 6,000 older, high-emissions trucks over seven years, but six years in, only 429 had been replaced, despite the bi-state agency spending millions of its own monies and federal funds. In January, the Port Authority, pleading poverty, canceled its ban on older polluting truck models — and put a bullet in the replacement program.
After the Voice‘s investigation, U.S. senators, including former Newark mayor Cory Booker, called on the EPA to step up its efforts to reduce pollution at the port. New Jersey state senator Raymond Lesniak, the representative for Elizabeth and the legislature’s in-house port watchdog, re-introduced a bill to impose fees on shipping companies and trucking carriers to help pay for the replacement of the polluting rigs, which would fix one of the fatal flaws of the earlier program: It dumped much of the cost on drivers, who make an average of $28,000 a year.
The EPA, which helped fund the replacement program, has yet to take any action. Lesniak’s bill has stalled in committee (for the second time in two sessions). Baraka is not surprised. “Historically, the Port Authority is like a whole other state. Fundamentally, it’s flawed. The whole board is made up of white men, a throwback to something from before the Civil Rights Act,” he tells the Voice. “We have no voice in what is happening there at all.”
Now local organizers and pols are expanding the theater of battle: They are coming after the agency’s money.
Since taking office in 2014, Baraka has relentlessly pushed for the Port Authority to pay its fair share in rent to the city, which, together with neighboring Elizabeth, owns the land the port sits on. He has also led marches and rallies demanding more jobs for Newark residents. But now Baraka is drawing a straight line from the Port Authority’s decades-long neglect of its financial obligations to Newark to the emissions problem itself.
Other port cities, like Los Angeles and Long Beach in California, have successfully reduced emissions by imposing serious fees on the shipping operators and tenants at their ports, which are then used to finance truck replacement. On top of that, they’ve launched new, low-emission trucking companies that employ local workers and force the older companies to compete on a new, greener playing field. It’s worth pointing out that both ports are just as large as the Port of Newark and have not seen any falloff in business since they began pushing toward zero emissions almost a decade ago.
“There’s a lie that if we make them spend money to clean up our ports, the ships won’t come any more, that they’ll go elsewhere. But most of the goods that go through the port are for our immediate metropolitan area. Things go on trucks, and they stay close by,” says Amy Goldsmith, state director at Clean Water Action, an organization that has assumed a leadership role in the movement for healthier ports in New Jersey. “There’s a way to clean up the port and create family-sustaining jobs that don’t continue to add more trucks to the streets, and we’re excited to see the city looking at those solutions.”
Baraka — who earlier in his administration was quieter on emissions issues — wants the Port Authority to follow that West Coast model. He believes the Port Authority not only has the money to pay for more robust emission-reduction efforts, but it can also afford to employ more Newark residents. Compared with other port cities in the United States, Newark has only half the per-capita representation of local residents working at the port, according to a 2013 study. Baraka has pressed the Port Authority and its tenants to set aside jobs for residents, as well as step up their outreach to local workers. This spring, he led a protest against the hiring practices of the International Longshoremen’s Union, which he believes discriminates against minority Newarkers. (The ILU declined to comment for the article.)
He’s also demanding that the Port Authority makes good on its rent. In the agency’s lease with Newark, there’s a “true-up” provision, which allows the city to increase the authority’s rent if revenues from the port increase. The city recently determined that it’s owed at least $12 million more annually, and is currently negotiating for that money. Without the $12 million, Newarkers face a 3 percent tax hike to keep their cash-strapped city running.
And in fact, the Port Newark–Elizabeth Marine Terminal, the largest port on the Eastern Seaboard, had a record 2015. It moved over $100 billion in goods — a 10 percent increase over the previous year — to keep stores stocked with products from all over the world. More than 75 percent of those goods are consumed in the region, one of the wealthiest consumer markets in the world. It seems only right that Newark and Elizabeth, the port’s landlords, would see at least some of the spillover of this recent surge in global shipping.
Instead, Newark and Elizabeth have suffered all the negative effects of the industry — pollution, congestion, and crumbling infrastructure — while receiving almost nothing in return. As the Voice reported in May, one in four Newark children has asthma, while diesel particulate levels surrounding the port are up to 1,000 times greater than levels considered safe to breathe. Meanwhile, the unemployment rates in Newark and Elizabeth are 9.6 percent and 8 percent, respectively; the median household incomes, $34,387 and $43,590. The port is surrounded by working-class neighborhoods with some of the highest poverty rates in the state: Newark’s poorest census tract directly borders the terminal.
“Here is one of the poorest cities in the nation by per capita income, there’s pockets of chronic poverty, and it sits in the middle of one of the wealthiest consumer markets in the world,” says Ana Baptista, a professor at the New School, who has studied the economics of the Port Authority for the past several years. “These people have no access to the wealth that’s right in their backyard, and are being poisoned and sickened by this port. The idea that the benefits of the port will eventually trickle down to these communities is a great symbol of how global wealth has been distributed. The wealthy are getting the profits, while the poor are paying the costs.”
In a statement to the Voice, the Port Authority wrote that it is now focusing on rail projects to help alleviate emissions (though 85 percent of inbound shipments leave the port in trucks). While avoiding the topic of the rent increase, spokesman Steve Coleman did state that the Port Authority “would like to further our partnership with the local cities in and around the port and all stakeholders. For example, working with the city of Newark to enforce its existing ordinances that regulate truck traffic and truck idling on local streets.”
In other words, the city, not the Port Authority, should enforce pollution laws already on the books.
“To put the onus back on Newark to do more is ridiculous. It wouldn’t be an issue if the trucks were being modernized to begin with,” Mayor Baraka tells the Voice. “We obviously need more police officers to enforce these ordinances, which would be easier if we had the dollars that were being generated by the port. It’s not about us ignoring idling trucks, it’s about us having the amount of personnel to enforce the traffic issues that exist.”
There are early signs, however, that the city’s yanking on the Port’s purse strings may be working. In what could be a first for a high-ranking Port Authority official, Molly Campbell, the director of the agency’s ports division, recently toured the neighborhoods surrounding the port. Environmental activists and community members hope that by meeting the people who have to live with the Port Authority’s decisions, who breathe the fumes from one of the greatest economic engines in the world but reap none of the benefits, Campbell will understand the urgency of the situation. (The event was closed to reporters.)
Baraka believes that until the leadership of the Port Authority more closely resembles the people the port serves, it will remain a battle for Newark to get even the slightest concessions.
“The Port Authority sits in a community that is predominantly of color and lower middle-class — and we have no representation on the board whatsoever and no voice in what policies are being made,” he explains. “Everything that happens is based on a struggle between them and us, and not based on the interests of the communities they make money in.”