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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Shipping Smog

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on efforts to force the EPA to create emissions standards for ocean-going vessels that call on U.S. ports. Global trade is bringing more and more cargo ships to American harbors, and with the cargo comes air pollution from ships burning cheap, dirty fuel.


CURWOOD: Smokestacks, trucks, cars, even lawn mowers. Over the last 30 years all these sources of urban air pollution have come under increasing regulation in the battle against smog. But a substantial source of deadly soot in some cities has gone largely unnoticed: the exhaust stacks of cargo ships. Now an environmental group is suing the government to crack down on dockside polluters. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports.

(Noise at the dock side)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: With the explosive growth of international trade, America's ports are busier than ever. More than 200 ships drop anchor nationwide every day. Here in Boston, dock workers are offloading blue and orange containers filled with goods from overseas.

MAN: We have bottled water, clothing, footwear, canned goods, slates of granite, children's Lego building blocks move through the port. And this time of year, near St. Patrick's Day, we probably are going to be bringing in a lot of Guinness Stout.

(A boat horn sounds)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But with the cargo comes pollution. Smokestack emissions from ships contribute to elevated ozone levels and smog in busy port cities, like Los Angeles and New York. The Environmental Protection Agency has standards for small boats, like tugs and fishing vessels. But the agency hasn't set rules for big ships. Environmentalist Russell Long.

LONG: They've completely ignored the large category, really a very, very significant source of pollution, which is tankers, container ships, cargo carriers and vessels like that -- the biggest ships that are out there. And as a result, we're going to have tremendous amounts of pollution ongoing from these vessels many, many, many years into the future.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Mr. Long directs a San Francisco group called the Blue Water Network, which is suing the EPA to force them to create emissions standards for oceangoing vessels. He says these ships pump 273,000 tons of nitrogen oxides into the air in the U.S. every year. The EPA and the maritime industry say emissions standards are on the way, but there's a problem. They say the U.S. can't set those standards alone.

METCALF: We have an international business that's involved in international trade that requires international standards.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Kathy Metcalf is with the Chamber of Shipping of America, a trade group. An international treaty to reduce air emissions has already been written. Ms. Metcalf says American officials were instrumental in drafting this agreement, and the U.S. can't act before the rest of the world signs it.

METCALF: Rather than focus on what sometimes we in the United States do as a very nationalistic, focused tunnel vision, they have taken it a step higher to the appropriate international forum that will enable air emissions to be addressed on a global scale.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: This isn't just a regulatory challenge, though. It's a technical one as well. Most big ships are designed to burn something called bunker fuel. It's cheap, but dirty. Environmentalists have been pushing the industry to switch to cleaner fuel, at least when the ships are sailing in U.S. waters. But Jonathan Benner, an attorney representing vessel owners, says it's impractical to retool ships to burn different fuels in different countries. And, he says, a U.S. ban on bunker fuel would simply shift the pollution problem from America to other countries.

BENNER: If you regulate in one part of the globe, sometimes it just causes a reaction in another part of the globe. If you set fuel standards, for example, as a way of controlling emissions in one nation, then sometimes you just cause the fuel supplies that do not meet those standards to go to another part of the world.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Despite the emphasis on global cooperation, it could be years before the Maritime Emissions Treaty takes effect. Only two countries have ratified the pact so far. In the U.S., it's unlikely to come up for a vote in the Senate in the foreseeable future.

(Noise at the dock)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: This is why environmentalists are suing the U.S. government for unilateral action now. Most port facilities, like Boston's, are located in poor neighborhoods, and Russell Long of the Blue Water Network says cleaning up the air around them is a matter of environmental justice.

LONG: The EPA has a responsibility. They need to step in and develop regulations to protect people in the United States, to protect low-income people and to protect people of color and to reduce smog levels for all of us.

(Dock noises)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Unless something's done, the EPA predicts the problem will grow worse. As maritime commerce continues to thrive, the agency estimates nitrogen oxide emissions will grow by 35 percent in the next 30 years. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Boston.



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