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Executive Profile: Geraldine Knatz, Ph.D., Executive Director, Port of Los Angeles

The head of the U.S.'s largest port is an expert at balancing economic growth with environmental leadership.

By Katy A. Smith 03-28-2013 02:45:00

Environmental leadership has always been top of the agenda for Geraldine Knatz, Ph.D., the first female Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles. It's a fitting role for the energetic leader, who has been the driving force behind the San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan, just one of her many career-defining accomplishments.

The clean air initiative, which started in 2006, has resulted in significantly reduced amounts of sulfur oxide (76%), diesel particulate matter (71%), and nitrogen oxide (51%) for both the Port of L.A. and the Port of Long Beach. The plan also brought together the first meeting of the ports’ leaders since the 1920s. As a result of the Clean Air Action Plan, major expansion projects at three L.A. container terminals were approved by the Los Angeles Harbor Commission.

In keeping with her inclusive and transparent approach, Dr. Knatz ensured the public had a voice in the plan, which brought several challenges to the table. “At that time, both ports were having difficulty getting projects off the ground,” she says. “The hardest thing to figure out was how to get a publicly-appointed board to approve a port project in the face of people coming at them saying these projects were causing cancer and asthma in kids. But in the end, we were successful in getting all the issues handled.”

Leadership in Action

Dr. Knatz began her maritime career in 1977 at the Port of L.A. as an environmental scientist while working on her Master’s degree in environmental engineering and her Ph.D. in marine biology at the University of Southern California. In 1981 she began a 25-year tenure at the Port of Long Beach, first as Manager of Environmental Planning and eventually becoming Assistant Director and then Director of Planning.

She was responsible for a $2.3 billion capital improvement program, was the lead negotiator on the Alameda Corridor railroad acquisitions, and spearheaded the ground-breaking San Pedro Bay 2020 Plan. “We did that in 1986,” she says. “It was a far-reaching plan and was monumental in that many aspects of it got implemented at both ports.”

At the Port of L.A., where she’s been the Executive Director since 2006, ongoing expansion continues with a five-year, $1.3 billion Capital Improvement Program. The port recently finished a $370 million Main Channel Deepening Project, which dredged the Main Channel to ~53 feet and allows the world’s largest container vessels to call at the port. The port also broke ground earlier this year on a $137.7 million railyard that will increase on-dock rail efficiency and reduce congestion on local freeways.

The busiest port in the U.S., L.A. handled more than eight million TEUs in 2012. Current environmental initiatives under the direction of Dr. Knatz include signing onto the Environmental Ship Index, a worldwide maritime program that helps promote ships that are cleaner and greener when in port. Another focus is on electrifying operations to reduce diesel usage, including investing in an all-electric (not hybrid) road truck that is being tested with grant money to pursue another 12 that Dr. Knatz says is the wave of the future.

Hot-Button Issues

Just before Christmas 2012, Dr. Knatz had a labor disruption on her hands when approximately 800 clerical workers at both the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach walked off the job, protesting the possible loss of jobs due to outsourcing. The dispute shut down the dock for eight days.

“The use of technology is also a concern,” says Dr. Knatz. “One of our customers has already received their first piece of automated equipment. That’s something that this industry is facing. We’re going to have to deal with it in 2014 here, and it is going to be a difficult challenge ahead.” No doubt, and also a hot topic that Dr. Knatz is tackling in her role as current President of the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH). The Port of L.A. is hosting the bi-annual IAPH conference this year, slated for May 6-10 in Los Angeles.

Reflecting on her career so far, Dr. Knatz has enjoyed the immense variety of work. “It is so invigorating. You never know what’s going to happen,” she says. She’s also passionate about preserving the port’s land and its heritage for future generations: “We have a fabulous history here, and every day we make new history. That’s what’s so great about it.” – MarEx

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.