Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to L.A. Clean Truck Program

supreme court_scottlengerThe Supreme Court has agreed to hear a trucking industry challenge to rules that Los Angeles adopted five years ago designed to curb truck emissions at the nation’s busiest port.

The case (American Trucking Associations vs. City of Los Angeles) will determine the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Clean Truck Program at the Port of Los Angeles. Similar rules are also in force at the nearby Port of Long Beach. The question centers on whether cities and states have authority to limit pollution from trucks moving long-haul cargo.

The answer to that question would seem obvious, especially in environmental circles, but the ATA contends that the local clean truck regulations run afoul of a federal law that deregulated motor carriers. So, it gets complicated. There is a provision in the law that preempts any state or local measure that is “related to the price, route or service of any motor carrier.” The purpose of that provision is to speed the free flow of trucks, buses and other shippers and to prevent local or state rules that would add costs to those movements.

So far, the Los Angeles regulations have fared well in the lower courts, according to a news report in the LA Times. A U.S. District Judge in Los Angeles, Christina Snyder, rejected the trucking industry’s preemption challenge in 2010.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision and upheld all the regulations, except a provision restricting independent contractors. The provision stipulated that drivers must be employees of the companies they haul goods for and not independent operators, which until that point, the vast majority of truckers were. The appellate judges found the rules at issue were not like ordinary laws governing motor carriers in Los Angeles, but rather special rules involving vehicles operating in the city’s port facility. So while the appellate panel found that the port couldn’t require thousands of port-servicing independent truckers to become trucking firm employees, it split 2-1 in favor of the port on four separate truck plan issues also opposed by the ATA, including an off-street parking provision, financial capability requirement, maintenance provision and placard requirement.

Those four rules “have nothing to do with improving air quality,” ATA President and CEO Bill Graves asserted in a statement.

Some could argue that requiring proper truck maintenance, financial capability, monitoring where idling trucks park and placarding have a lot to do with air quality. But Graves denies that the ATA challenge is being pursued because it opposes the environmental aspects of the Clean Trucks Plan.

Maybe so. The ATA certainly will not mind seeing those environmental aspects—the real purpose of the rules—scrapped on basically doing-business economic technicalities.

“Our objections to the port’s program have always been business-related, and not, as certain reactionary groups have asserted, out of a desire to cling to polluting ways.”

One of those “reactionary groups,” the Natural Resources Defense Council, countered, “This continues to be a hard-fought battle against an industry clinging to its polluting practices,” said Melissa Lin Perrella, a lawyer for the NRDC who was quoted in the LA Times report. “The Clean Truck Program at the Port of L.A. has dramatically reduced harmful air pollution,” she continued, “but it won’t stay that way unless the trucking companies step up and shoulder the necessary costs of upkeep and care.”

ATA has fought the Clean Truck Program every inch of the way since 2008, which sure doesn’t sound like stepping up.

So, the Supreme Court will hear the case this spring and rule by July.

[Image: Supreme Court by scottlenger via Flickr cc]

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