Growing up in Wayne, N.J., Geraldine Knatz loved nothing more than going crabbing with her family on the Jersey Shore. Until, heading home one summer evening, she was overcome by remorse. Insisting her father turn around, she made him drive back to the beach.
“He was annoyed,” Knatz said. “He didn’t like having to get off the parkway and pay extra tolls to go back, all because I wanted to let my crabs go. We quit crabbing after that, but that moment was the start of me.”
Knatz was in junior high by then and often watched French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau on TV. She also had a laboratory set up in the family’s basement, where her older brother played with his chemistry set.
“My brother used to blow stuff up down there, but then he lost interest and I started using the laboratory to look through a microscope at pond water. That’s when I become more aware of life. Other life.”
Fast forward to 2005 and Knatz — who earned a master’s in environmental engineering in 1977 from USC Viterbi School of Engineering and a doctorate in biological sciences in 1979 from USC Dornsife — had risen through the ranks at the Port of Long Beach to the No. 2 position. She oversaw a $2.3 billion capital improvement program and had spearheaded a number of environmental initiatives, including development of the Green Port Policy. She was already serving as chair of the International Association of Ports and Harbors’ Port Environment Committee when she was offered the top job at the Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s busiest container port.
Encompassing 7,500 acres on 43 miles of waterfront, the port handled more than $273 billion in cargo last year and is responsible for three million jobs.
Retiring January 2014, Knatz is the port’s first female executive director.
“I think what was even more significant about my appointment than the fact I’m a woman was that I did not have the traditional background for a port director,” she reflected.
Port directors tend to come from the U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard or shipping industry.
It was Knatz’s science background that made her the top choice for the post and gave her credibility with the organizations she and her team needed to work with to solve the port’s environmental problems, she said.
“My focus had always been on how to keep the port growing and retaining our No. 1 status,” she said.
When Knatz took over in January 2006, capital improvement programs had ground to a halt, largely due to community opposition to port expansion and litigation over environmental issues. Most lawsuits focused on health issues associated with the use of diesel fuel, the primary equipment fuel at the port.
“Scientific research — some done at USC — linked diesel exhaust to certain cancers,” Knatz said. “People were coming to public hearings holding up maps showing the port was a hot spot.
“This port is vital to the local economy, the state’s economy, the national economy. If we are not spending $300 million a year in capital investment, we are not doing our job and we dropped down to about $60 million a year because we couldn’t get any projects approved.
“We have 900,000 jobs in the Southland that are connected to this port, and all those people are relying on us to do our job. And we couldn’t do it in the face of community opposition. When you have a board of policymakers appointed by the mayor, you can’t go to them and say, ‘We want you to approve this project, and oh, by the way, there’s going to be 200 additional cancer cases associated with that.’ ”
Knatz found herself devoting 50 percent of her time to environmental issues to achieve any growth.
“Our first goal was to reduce health impacts, clean up the port, and not put any project up for approval that would cause an additional increase in cancer risk. We set a stretch goal to reduce air emissions by 45 percent from all sources in five years.”
A big fan of stretch goals, her personal motto is “It’s impossible, it’s difficult, it’s done.”
Unafraid to adopt controversial and far-reaching methods, Knatz took a multipronged approach.
First, she and her team tackled the aging truck fleet. “We said: ‘By a certain date, no trucks can come into this port unless they are model year 2007 or newer.’ That was a dramatic change.”
To motivate owners to renew their fleet, Knatz’s team hit them where it hurt: their wallets.
“The fee to come through the gate for pre-2007 model year vehicles was set high enough that if you were a regular port user, after a year and a half you would have paid enough in fees to buy yourself a new truck. Within 18 months the total truck fleet turned over.”
If Knatz knows how to wield a big stick, she also knows how to dangle a carrot. Her team drove the switch to low sulfur fuels for ships’ propulsion by offering financial incentives.
Knatz and her crew also pioneered the use of shore-side electrical power for ships. After making it a key part of the cleanup plan for the port, Knatz was able to leverage her role in the International Association of Ports and Harbors to ensure that shore-side electrical power became the international standard. She did this by volunteering one of the shore-side power experts on her staff to co-chair an international committee to determine what the standard should be.
“We made a requirement that ships had to plug in, which meant that ship construction had to evolve. Other ports followed our example, so we drove change,” she said.
Knatz’s team also implemented a vessel speed reduction program that hugely benefitted air quality and launched a technology advancement program with the motto “Toward a Zero Emission Port.”
“We said, ‘We have problems. This port is a great laboratory. If you’ve got an idea, and we think it could help, we’ll invest in your business.’ ”
The program helped develop the world’s first hybrid tugboat and all electric truck with enough torque to pull a fully loaded container. The U.S. Department of Energy was so impressed with the latter, it pledged to help fund the port’s first fleet.
In six years Knatz and her team succeeded in reducing truck emissions by more than 80 percent and diesel particulates by 71 percent.
“We had to allow our customers to generate more business, while significantly reducing pollution. We were able to figure out how to do that. And that allowed us to keep the business part of the port growing,” she said.
Still, as is the case for any general manager, Knatz has had her detractors. But she has always kept her eye on her commitment to the port.
“I am proud of the many accomplishments that our team made at the Port of Los Angeles during my tenure,” she said of her impending departure.
Knatz’s passion for the port is clear. Her office has a panoramic view of the main channel and she still displays a sense of wonder about the vessels sailing past.
“When people visit my office the first thing they do is look out the window. It’s majestic, it’s beautiful. Plus, it’s extreme engineering. It’s huge ships, huge cranes. It’s exciting.”
Knatz is keen to share that excitement. During her tenure, she transformed the port complex, spearheading the creation of more than 60 acres of public parks and adding several miles of public promenade along the waterfront. Her goal was to turn back 16 miles of the port’s 43 miles of waterfront to the public.
“Fifty years ago, 100,000 people came into the port every day compared to 16,000 today. The port used to be so much more to so many more people and I want to recreate that vision by getting more people here daily, whether they are students, researchers, scientists or inventors.”
Her wish may be realized through the creation of her longstanding vision — AltaSea, a project that would move the Southern California Marine Institute (SCMI), an alliance of 11 colleges and universities including USC, from Terminal Island to the waterfront in San Pedro, where it would occupy 28 acres of warehouse and wharf space. The proposed $680 million state-of-the-art facility would include circulating seawater laboratories, an interpretive center, an educational facility and the possibility to develop the world’s largest seawater wave tank. AltaSea, a nonprofit, would raise $500 million of the cost and the remaining $180 million would come from the port.
“There is no other place in the City of Los Angeles where you can have marine research, laboratories, tanks for marine organisms, and storage for big pieces of equipment, right on deep, clean water,” Knatz said. “AltaSea could provide that.”
The fact that AltaSea is even a possibility is a testament to Knatz’s transformation of the harbor. When she arrived there as a USC student in 1977, the water was so polluted, nothing could live in it. Now kelp flourishes along the breakwater and the harbor is home to hundreds of different species of fish and birds.
“That’s why AltaSea can work, because the seawater is such high quality it can be pumped right in from the harbor to the marine laboratory,” Knatz said.
After driving cross-country from New Jersey to Los Angeles to attend USC, drawn by the lure of the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island, Knatz was inspired to become a marine biologist.
Knatz has fond memories of her graduate student years.
“It was just a great, fun experience. One of the things that USC does really well is interdisciplinary research,” Knatz said, crediting her study of both biology and engineering with giving her the competitive edge in her career.
Knatz said she learned leadership skills from her teaching assistant experience at USC, which in April 2013, recognized Knatz’s achievements with a USC Alumni Merit award.
“You have to learn how to inspire people. USC teaches people to be fearless. To think big. To strive.”
Those are qualities Knatz hopes to pass on to her students at USC, where she taught for more than 30 years, first as a part time lecturer in the biology department at USC Dornsife then in environmental engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. After a three-year break, she plans to return in January 2014.
She clearly relishes the experience.
“I love bringing my USC students down here and teaching them about real life. I want to reach engineers when they are young so they understand about the environment and public interaction — that being an engineer involves a lot more than just producing drawings and buildings.”
Asked what she likes most about her job, Knatz smiled.
“The best part is you never know what’s going to happen next. One day it might be a labor issue. Then the next thing you know, we have a battleship. You never get bored, because things are constantly changing.”
Knatz is equally passionate about the port’s history. “Did you know they had whaling here until World War II?” she asked. “Or that in the early 1900s there was a bohemian women’s literary retreat in a squatter’s shack on the breakwater?”
Her passion extends to the preservation of the port’s records. After writing the forward for Port of Los Angeles: An Illustrated History from 1850 to 1945 by Ernest Marquez and Veronique de Turenne (Angel City Press, 2007), Knatz and her team hired an archivist. They used a historic building to house the port archives and made the records publicly available. Currently, Knatz is contributing to a book on the lost communities of Terminal Island and will contribute to an upcoming port history Web site and blog.
Knatz reflected on the progress she and her team have made at the nation’s busiest port. She thought about her 42 years of dedicated service to the maritime industry.
“Growing up, I never dreamed of getting a job where I can change the world but now I realize that we are changing the world by transforming an industry.”
Knatz paused, her gaze drawn back to the ships ploughing up and down the main channel outside her window.
“I think I had the passion all along because I grew up by the ocean. I love the ocean. I always want to be connected to it.”