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

Harbor Pollution

Air Date: Week of

The Environmental Protection Agency is about to issue proposed rules on air pollution from large ship smokestacks. Air pollution experts in several parts of the country realize ship smog can make up a significant part of regional air problems. Ingrid Lobet reports from Los Angeles.

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CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In the busy harbor of Los Angeles, cargo ships can generate as much air pollution as a million cars on the freeway. It’s a problem most port cities face as the dirty air hangs over neighborhoods from Boston to Biloxi.
So, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering rules to clean up some of the marine smokestacks. The impetus for the move comes from a lawsuit filed by citizens in San Francisco. But the U.S. can only regulate ships flying the Stars and Stripes. And most freighters in U.S. ports are registered elsewhere. From Los Angeles, Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet has our story.


LOBET: Russell Long leans against a dockyard fence. His father was a ship broker, but he may be more of a ship breaker. He’s director of the Bluewater Network, the group that sued the EPA over ship emissions.

LONG: You can’t ignore the pollution coming out of the smokestack of the big ships. All you have to do is look at them sometimes in the harbor, and it’s just thick, black exhaust pouring out of these things, sometimes. And it’s amazing that people don’t stop and notice.


LOBET: Cargo ships burn the lowest quality fuel refineries produce. It’s molasses-thick bunker fuel, and contains 50 times more air polluting sulfur than diesel fuel. Between the sulfur content and the size of a ship’s engine, it’s easy to see how a single voyage pours out pollution measured in tons.

LONG: You multiply that out, and you have something like 280 pounds of pollutants that are being emitted on an hourly basis.

LOBET: And it takes tens of thousands of ships to deliver the world’s rice, refrigerators and Rolls Royces.

ALLARD: One of the major threats to our air quality over the next ten or fifteen years is pollution from marine shipping offshore.

LOBET: Douglas Allard is Air Pollution Control Chief for the County of Santa Barbara, which has had a serious ozone problem.

ALLARD: In fact, we found that in 1999, about one-third of our oxides of nitrogen emissions, which is one of the pollutants that forms ozone, came from those ships, which means that there’s as much NOX coming from those ships as all of our onshore motor vehicle emissions combined.

LOBET: Allard says in 15 years, two-thirds of that pollution will be coming from ships. Regions are unequally affected, depending on how the wind blows emissions from busy harbors and shipping lanes. Houston, Louisiana, the Great Lakes and the West Coast are all in the path of the pollution. Dr. James Corbett of the University of Delaware has done much of the research. He also looked at ship emissions globally.

CORBETT: At the international level, NOX emissions, nitrogen oxide emissions, from ship engines can contribute 14-percent of the total global NOX inventory from human activity from combustion systems.

LOBET: Yet, few U.S. officials believe it’s within their purview to force changes on ships registered in countries such as Liberia or Greece. The EPA would not comment for this story, but is expected to propose reducing the emissions only of U.S. vessels.

The International Maritime Organization has jurisdiction, but hasn’t yet moved on the issue. That’s left the problem to the industry and to local officials, like Dr. Robert Kanter of the Port of Long Beach. And he’ll tell you there’s only so much he can do.


KANTER: These are our tenants. We can’t tell them how to do their business. We’re trying to advise them what’s in their best interest, and everybody’s best health.

LOBET: But with trade doubling in the near-term, and the prospect of a thickening marine haze, shippers, air pollution officials, and the ports in Los Angeles got together and hashed out a voluntary plan. As ships cross the 20 mile line, they’re asked to slow down to 12 knots, burning less fuel, making less smoke.


CAPTAIN: We are now passing Whiskey Buoy and proceeding. Present course two-seven general, over.

MALE: Roger. And, are you aware of the voluntary air quality compliance zone?

CAPTAIN: Roger. Yeah, we are at that speed, not more than twelve knots.

MALE: That is correct, captain. What is your ETA?

LOBET: A year later, most captains, like this one, do know about the voluntary rule. But to Robert Kanter’s frustration, only 50 to 60 percent of ships are slowing down.


KANTER: If we can get 90 to 95-percent compliance with that, that will be a huge improvement in air quality here. Huge figures, 30 to 40 percent of emissions from the vessels can be reduced.


LOBET: Not all of the air pollution at ports comes from ships. Heavy-duty diesel trucks put out half the vehicle pollution in California, even though they make up only three percent of what’s on the road. Now imagine this: there are 33,000 heavy-duty truck trips in and out of the ports of LA and Long Beach everyday. Officials say that number will triple in the next two decades. But, they say, this is one thing they can do something about.


LOBET: State inspectors flag down big rigs near the ports.

INSPECTOR: When you see my thumbs go up, push down your throttle, the gas, all the way to the floor, real quick ...Boom! Okay! You ready? Go. [Truck engine] Yes, very good, very good. Wait a second.

LOBET: More than 90 percent of the trucks who take these tests pass them nowadays. But not all of them are inspected.

INSPECTOR: All right, sir, you already got it. Have a nice day.

LOBET: Many port and shipping related engines have gotten cleaner. Long-time port workers say they’ve seen the improvement. They get less soot on their cars now. But people who live in housing projects near the ports say something else. Expansion is bringing more ships and more trucks, and, say, Carol Piseno, and Maria Juventino Quintero, more illness.

PISENO AND QUINTERO: [In Spanish and English] In the morning, like we smell like eggs, sulfur. Well, I got asthma this last year. I don’t know if it’s due to that. Because I never had asthma before. My son has asthma. If he gets real bad, then he has to be on a machine.
My son, he tells me, "Mom, do I have to live like this?" I says, "I don’t know, son." What answer can I give him?

LOBET: People interviewed for this story agreed on one thing: more can be done to clean up shipping. The Bluewater Network’s Russell Long says, for one thing, the EPA could require cleaner fuels, as will soon be the case for diesel trucks.


LONG: They could make them convert to a clean fuel right away if they wanted to.


LOBET: Long expects EPA’s proposals to fall short. And he says he’ll sue the agency again. Other people believe cleaner engines will come through incentives. Norway charges lower port fees to cleaner container ships. And new technology may make marine engines burn cleaner when their fuel is mixed with water. For now, a quarter of a trillion dollars worth of the world’s newest goods passed through here, propelled by yesterday’s engines.


LOBET: For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.




Bluewater Network

University of Delaware Prof. Jim Corbett’s homepage

International Maritime Organisation, in London">


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