How to clean up our ports in Savannah and beyond

Grants are available right now to begin the clean energy transition at our ports.
The Port of Savannah. (Jeremy Polston/Georgia Ports Authority)

Credit: Courtesy of Georgia Ports Authority

Credit: Courtesy of Georgia Ports Authority

The Port of Savannah. (Jeremy Polston/Georgia Ports Authority)

Ports are hot spots for local emissions and air pollutants, with front-line workers and nearby communities suffering disproportionate harm from these pollutants. Resources to address these issues have, for years, needed to be more focused and focused. The Port of Savannah is an example of the struggle to address a legacy of environmental injustices while transitioning to a clean energy economy. Yet, the Inflation Reduction Act — supported by Sens. Jon Ossof and Raphael Warnock, both D-Ga., and signed into law in 2022 — provides an opportunity to increase protections for environmental justice communities with a newly launched $3 billion Clean Ports Program.

As the senior ports and freight campaigner for Friends of the Earth, I had the opportunity to meet with Savannah’s port leaders. Initially, the meeting was to include a tour of the port and engage local leaders representing the Savannah community. Yet, the tour never happened. The community members in attendance opted instead to continue the meeting because the port’s staff were not addressing their legitimate concerns. Specifically, Savannah’s most affected communities have repeatedly asked for upgraded air quality monitors, improvements to the port’s physical infrastructure, better methods for managing cargo movements and workforce development opportunities for adults.

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

I was surprised and disappointed, as were the residents who attended, by the port leadership’s ignorance about the $3 million available through the Clean Ports Program. These funds can support communication and collaboration in near-port communities, as well as explore resiliency planning to combat environmental destruction from climate change and port expansion.

It’s important that communities near Savannah’s port embrace best practices that help build transformative partnerships and address community concerns. This type of community engagement best helps port decision-makers better understand and help address the needs of near-port communities, and port workers and build productive community relationships during planning activities and operations. Ora Wright, a fourth-generation West Savannah resident who visited the port with us in April, told me she left feeling disappointed and dejected.

“After at least 25 residents voiced our concerns and recommendations for mitigating particulate matter that contaminate our communities, and homes and cause deplorable living conditions, I was very unhappy with the port’s response,” she said. “I do not believe that the way our concerns were disregarded and dismissed reflects Georgia Ports Authority’s Office of Ethics core values. The next step is to follow up with funders, as well as political and industry leaders.”

Georgia Ports Authority claims it is aware of and concerned about the environmental justice issues and the extreme burdens and barriers that the port’s operation places on community members. However, its final operating decisions show that money is the top priority. During the aforementioned visit, GPA ignored the priorities of the community and the opportunities that the Clean Ports Program offers. The Environmental Protection Agency should crack down on port authorities that are disregarding important environmental concerns. Until then, ports will continue to do the bare minimum. GPA’s current investment in air quality monitoring, for example, is extremely low.

The Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law present strong opportunities to improve conditions in ports and their surrounding communities in Savannah and around the country. Unfortunately, the port’s reluctance to include community-based organizations, such as Harambee House, a flagship environmental justice group in Georgia, has placed the port on the wrong side of history. Ossoff and Warnock have the power to step in and address the port’s negligence on billions of funding for port pollution reduction.

In addition to the Clean Ports Program, there are programs making grants available right now to begin the clean energy transition at our ports, including the Port Infrastructure and Development Program and the aptly named Reduction of Truck Emissions at Ports Program. These programs build on the EPA’s Ports Initiative, which is helping ports nationwide address public health and environmental impacts on surrounding communities. The available funds can be used for charging infrastructure, electric trucks, vessel shore power and more.

It’s been reported that President Biden has struggled with distributing environmental program funding from the IRA and IIJA. Electrifying ports and assisting port communities is an easy path forward. Further, it’s up to the region’s Port Authority to apply for this funding and work with environmental justice groups to improve living conditions for port communities.

If authorities are unable to step up, Ossof and Warnock must mandate that they do. As Kim Gaddy, the recently retired national environmental justice director for Clean Water Action, said: “It’s incumbent on the Port of Savannah to apply for this funding and work with local groups, like the Harambee House, to advance environmental justice and work collaboratively toward a clean energy economy. Our communities and the planet can’t wait.”

Terrance L. Bankston is the senior ports and freights campaigner at Friends of the Earth.