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Backlog of cargo ships at southern California ports reaches an all-time high

The backlog of cargo ships in southern California reached an all-time high this week as a supply chain crisis continues to overwhelm America’s busiest port complex.

On Tuesday more than 100 ships were waiting to unload thousands of containers outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The backlog has seen dozens of ships idling in the waters outside the ports for weeks, and the bottleneck is expected to continue into next year.

The Biden administration has pledged to expand port operations to address the mounting problems amid an overwhelming demand for imported consumer products and a shortage of trucks, drivers and warehouse workers.

“These issues go through the entire chain, from ship to shelf,” Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, told ABC7. “That’s why we’re not just working with the ports. It’s the truckers, the rail companies, the operators and also those retail companies that are at the other end of those supply chains.”

The Biden administration announced last week that the port of Los Angeles would move to 24/7 operations to ease the backlog and that major companies, including Walmart, FedEx and UPS, would intensify operations to get goods shipped across the US faster. Meanwhile, the port of Long Beach had already been experimenting with a 24/7 pilot program. Union Pacific has expanded to 24/7 rail service at its San Pedro facility.

The White House is also reportedly considering deploying the national guard to help reduce the backlog, CNN reported.

Shipping containers are unloaded at the Los Angeles port on 7 April.
Shipping containers are unloaded at the Los Angeles port on 7 April. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The global supply chain crisis has been driven by the pandemic, during which consumer sales climbed amid worker shortages and the slowdown of major transportation hubs. The surging demand has led to shortages of goods and containers and increasing costs for consumers.

“It’s not just a local problem,” said Dee Dee Myers, the director of the governor’s office of business and economic development, last month. “It’s not a Long Beach, LA problem. It’s not just a California problem. It’s an international problem.”

The historic surge has put increasing pressure on the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, the ninth largest in the world, which has broken monthly records regularly since last summer. The Los Angeles port had its busiest September yet last month, and has seen a 26% increase in cargo compared to last year.

Before a pandemic-induced buying boom created a jam at both ports and overwhelmed the workforce, some of whom were themselves recovering from Covid, the complex would typically see less than 20 ships at anchor.

In June, the Los Angeles port became the first in the western hemisphere to process 10m container units in a 12‑month period. The Long Beach port will likely process more than 9m container units this year, exceeding last year’s record of 8.1m units, the most in the port’s 110-year history.

The ports together move 40% of container imports in the US and 30% of exports, meaning the severe backlog has far reaching effects across the country and in California. Environmentalists and public health advocates are concerned about the environmental impacts of the backlog as the diesel-fueled engines of the ships churn out pollutants while they’re anchored outside the ports. Even in normal times, the ports create more than 100 tons of smog and other cancer-causing contaminants each day.

“The communities nearest the port and along the truck routes that serve the port are mostly low-income communities of color,” said David Pettit, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC), to the Guardian earlier this month. “They are taking the brunt of the pollution burden while all of us are benefiting from cheap flat-screen TVs from China or Korea or whatever is in those containers.”