Dame of The Docks

Geraldine Knatz, who runs the Port of Los Angeles, wants it busier, cleaner, and more secure 


Photograph by Misha Gravenor

Much has been made of the fact that Geraldine Knatz is the first woman to run the Port of Los Angeles—7,500 acres of land, water, ships, cranes, piers, and trucks that make up the busiest container seaport in the United States. The 58-year-old Knatz, with her hip-nerdy leopard-spotted glasses and lingering Jersey accent, drives a pink ’57 Thunderbird convertible. But changes under her leadership go beyond considerations of gender. The port’s last permanent executive director, Larry Keller, came to the job following two decades with the global shipping company Maersk. He resigned from the port after being subpoenaed to testify in a federal investigation of harbor contracting and amid criticism that he was insensitive to concerns in nearby neighborhoods about air pollution. Knatz began her career on the L.A. docksides as an environmental scientist (she has a Ph.D. in biological science). As second in command at the Port of Long Beach, she helped shape its Green Port Policy. Appointed executive director of the L.A. port in 2006, Knatz has contended with not only environmental issues, but also potential terrorist threats and a sagging economy that has slowed shipments of everything from Japanese cars to Chinese flat screens. She spoke to us about challenges the port is facing, including competition from shipping facilities in Canada and on the East Coast.


How confident can we be that the port, and therefore the L.A. area surrounding it, is secure from a terrorist attack? From conventional bombs? Nuclear bombs? 
I don’t think you can ever have 100 percent certainty of anything. Port security is always a work in progress. We have deterrents, but while we’re developing new technology, I’m sure the bad guys are out there thinking of new things. So it’s a constant evaluation of what the threats are. I believe we have the best team here to do that, with John Holmes, director of operations, who was captain of the port for the Coast Guard during 9/11. He goes around the world and teaches classes on weapons of mass destruction. I basically told John, “I don’t care what the federal government is giving out grants for. I want you to identify what we have to do here to make sure we’re the most secure port.”

So what are you doing?
Four or five years ago, about 5 or 6 percent of cargo containers were manually inspected. Where is that now? I don’t think that’s changed a whole lot. Most of the public doesn’t understand the difference between scanning and opening up a container of cargo. Say you were going to open 100 percent of the containers and look inside. It would be like telling the post office to open every envelope. That’s impractical. Currently we do scanning after the container is already off the ship. Everyone, even Congress, has recognized that this is not the best approach. So Congress passed a law that says by 2012, everything has to be scanned before it comes in. Even though Congress has passed that law, the Department of Homeland Security has not—maybe—embraced it fully. We’re trying to bring in the other big ports in the United States collectively to support the law and help Homeland Security embrace it. We support 100 percent scanning.

What if you don’t get it? 
I would hate something like what happened to the airlines after 9/11—when all of a sudden something goes wrong and it’s “Let’s shut down all the ports until we figure this out.” We can’t afford to be shut down. It hurts too many people. It hurts the entire country. The impact to the economy would be devastating. If something happens, I want to know that containers coming into the port have already been scanned overseas. Then if someone wants to sit here while the ship is coming across the ocean and check the scans of everything that is on the ship, I’m cool with it. So if the ship is OK, then we can bring it in here and get it unloaded, and that cargo can move.

What are you doing to achieve 100 percent scanning? 
We’ve been working independently on this issue. We are asking Stephen E. Flynn to come up with something the industry can do about this. He is president of the Center for National Policy, a nonpartisan think tank, and he wrote the book America the Vulnerable. He’s been talking to the four biggest terminal-operating companies. That’s about 80 percent of the cargo coming into the United States. Rather than try to increase what gets opened mechanically—even if we get it up to 10 or 15 percent, it’s going to cost an unbelievable amount—Steve’s philosophy is that there are ways to scan 100 percent of the containers more cost effectively. He is working with the Obama folks, and we’re pressing for that approach. It’s a national issue, and because we’re the biggest port, that national issue is our issue.

Are you going to make it by 2012? 
No. Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, told a Senate committee in December that her department will seek an extension. But do I think politically they can change the law? No. The general public doesn’t want stuff coming in unscanned.

Can you scan against bombs, conventional and nuclear?
Yes. We have put radioactivity scanners at every container terminal, and we’ve just recently installed them at the cruise terminal. The problem is they’re not isotope specific. So if somebody has just gone through prostate cancer treatment, he could set the things off. A lot of materials—ceramic tiles, for instance—have radioactivity in them and can set the scanners off. But technology is moving toward a further refinement in scanning devices so you can pinpoint danger.

Have there been any close calls, anything that has happened with security that you’re not happy about?
There has been nothing that has made me unhappy, but I’ll tell you an interesting story. It happened at the cruise terminal. We have dogs that sniff for various things. One alerted on a piece of baggage. It was brought through X ray, which spotted a round, dense thing inside that was somewhat consistent with a grenade. So we evacuated 300 to 400 passengers from the Berth 92 area, and shipping operations were stopped along the main channel. Port police detained the passenger who owned the bag. He was a shooting instructor at a firing range, and he had used his bag previously to carry weapons and ammunition. There was gunpowder residue. That’s what the dog smelled. The round, dense thing inside was a piece of Mexican coral. This is the largest West Coast cruise port in terms of passengers. We check the boats. In some cases we’ll send teams out who dive under the hulls. We have underwater security equipment that no local or state law enforcement agency has in the entire country.

Business is down at the port, right? 
The Kyser Center for Economic Research says total container traffic for the Los Angeles-Long Beach ports declined more than 13 percent in 2009 because of decreases in imports and exports. We’re down 14 percent. This year we expect that we’re going to be pretty flat or have modest growth. We are projecting that it will be about 2013 before we get back to our 2006 numbers.

Is there any way you can speed that up?
Two ways. You can increase your market share, which means that you’re taking it away from other ports. But that’s not happening. Or if the economy is good, then there’s greater consumer demand. But the demand just hasn’t been there. See that ship coming in? You see that little bit of empty in the back? There were ships earlier in the year when, honestly, the whole back end was practically empty. In the last few months we’ve seen gradual growth, more containers this month than last month. So there’s a glimmer of hope. But it’s not going to bounce back quickly.

Have the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach teamed up against competition from other West Coast ports? 
Long Beach has seen some business go to Canada. The Canadians are being very strategic. They have brought together their governments, their ports, their railroads, and they have a specific gateway initiative on serving the American heartland through Canada. It’s fairly impressive. The United States doesn’t have a national freight plan. We don’t have a strategy on how we’re going to move goods through the United States.

Whose responsibility is that? 
It would be the U.S. Department of Transportation. Back in Washington we’ve had the executive directors of our six ports on the West Coast walk into meetings at once. The people we met with said, “Wow! You’re all together.” We’re going to do it again, and we hope to bring the CEOs of two railroads with us. Right now there’s only one freight guy in the Department of Transportation, way down in the echelons, and we’re saying, “No, you need an office of multimodal freight, and that person has got to report to the secretary of transportation.” We have to get the federal government and Congress behind having a national freight plan.

How has the Obama administration been on this? 
It’s well received, but they’re looking at “Jeez, how are we going to pay for this?”

Are there any steps you could take right now to keep the Port of Los Angeles competitive with Canada, Mexico, and the East Coast? 
We went to our board in December with our Customer Relief Package for 2010. It’s $26 million in rent credits and new rates.  We looked at our 2010 budget and asked, “What can we give up?” We’ve got to suck it up for our customers, because their success is our success.

What could you have done to stop Canada in its tracks?
A lot of Canadian projects got their steam going in ’06, when we were very busy. We grew 14 percent in one year. That’s a lot simply to absorb, and we weren’t expanding because we couldn’t get public acceptance of our environmental impact reports.

Why couldn’t you? 
The health risk. We had stopped expanding because nobody could figure out a way to come up with an expansion project that also reduced health risks to the community. The mayor was telling me, “Clean up, but grow at the same time.” So, OK, how do you actually do that? We were stumped. But we said, “We can’t be stumped. We have to figure it out.” Our Clean Air Action Plan was developed with the Port of Long Beach, and it came out in November ’06. That was 11 months after I started. It was so strict that we jumped out ahead of the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It resulted in emissions reductions that allowed our board to approve six major environmental impact reports over the past two years. We have a half billion dollars’ worth of projects under construction now.

What are you doing to reduce carbon emissions and other greenhouse gasses to meet the state law on global warming solutions? 
Our focus when we did our Clean Air Action Plan was on particulate pollution, nitrogen oxides, and diesel exhaust—because of the health risks associated with diesel exhaust. Diesel contains particulate matter, which has been associated with asthma and cancer. Diesel is mostly what we burn, with ships, trucks, trains, even yard equipment. But a lot of what we’re doing to clean that up has helped us reduce greenhouse gasses as well. And we agreed to put in ten megawatts of solar power in the port within five years. The first part was one megawatt of power generated by solar panels at the cruise terminal. We’ll be using the panels to operate the terminal.

What do you have to do to meet state goals on greenhouse gas emissions? 
Meeting the goals required by state law—I tell you, what I’ve got to do to meet those goals I don’t even want to talk about. More advanced technologies are the kinds of things we really need to meet the 2020 greenhouse gas goals. But right now we’re trying to focus on health-risk issues, trying to reduce diesel particulate matter.

Ships are the biggest polluters at the port because they burn some of the dirtiest diesel fuel in the world. You’ve talked about “plugging in” ships. What do you have to do to make that happen? 
When a ship comes into the port, it takes a couple of days to off-load cargo. It ties up at a berth and keeps its auxiliary engines running, because people are living on the ship; the lights are on, they’re using electrical power to do stuff. So they’re burning diesel fuel. Sometimes you can see the black stuff coming out of the top of the ship. Plugging in means you turn off your engines and take this humongous extension cord and plug it into a socket. We’ve built these giant sockets along the berth, and the Department of Water and Power supplies the electricity. We’ve got China Shipping doing it. We’ve got the NYK line. Evergreen has pretty much finished construction, and we’re looking at doing it for Maersk, too. The cruise lines just got signed on. Our goal is to get power to all the major terminals by 2014.

When you’re plugging in ships, aren’t you simply creating environmental problems somewhere else? 
Comparing ships and power plants, there is a huge pollution savings. Even coal-powered electricity plants are very clean compared to power units on ships. Plugging in cuts emissions at least in half. And as the Department of Water and Power moves to a greater percentage of green power sources, then it gets even better overall.

How are you cleaning up the trucks? 
Our Clean Air Plan says that by 2012, the trucks all have to be 2007 models or newer. By the end of March we expect 90 percent of our cargo to be moved by clean trucks. Our focus this year is on liquid natural gas trucks, because LNG gets us some greenhouse gas savings. We’re trying to eliminate the use of fuel. We gave a grant to a company to develop a plug-in truck that can hold a full cargo container. They developed it, and we tested it. It was like, Wow! It’s got potential. So we contracted with them to build 20 more. Now they have a second-generation truck with a lithium battery and greater range. Because they’re heavy duty, these trucks draw a lot of power. They’re not going to be driving way out, but they’re going to be perfect for local moves. They’re not only clean—basically no emissions—but they’re quiet. In addition, we have a lot of equipment inside the terminals powered by diesel, some by liquid natural gas. We’re looking at rail-mounted systems that are all electric to move containers around. Then we’d really reduce those yard emissions to zero.

Among your projects to expand railroad access is the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility in Wilmington, close to Hudson Elementary School in Long Beach. Why does it have to be in a residential community, next to the school? 
An excellent question. The only way our port board is going to feel good about approving it is if it reduces the impact on the community. So how do you do that? It could have requirements that some of the terminals do not have yet.

You live in Long Beach and have raised two kids there. Does that make you especially conscious of port pollution? 
I live in the “zone of impact.” I take my work home with me.

How old are your sons?
They are 14 and 15. No asthma. I’ve been lucky as far as I know—you never know what affects people later on. It’s hard not to be affected when you have these public meetings and mothers come up there with their kids, showing you all the bad stuff they’ve gotten.    

Deborah Schoch, a staff writer at USC’s Center for Health Reporting, has covered the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for the Los Angeles Times.


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