California Fights Shipping Pollution As International Shippers Push Back

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By Janet Wilson, DC Bureau

Part IV in the four-part series No Safe Harbor about the shipping industry’s emissions problems

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Massive cargo ships have long motored into the nation’s busiest ports here and next door in Los Angeles, trailing plumes of sulfurous soot. They disgorge containers of toys, VCR’s and sneakers, then chug out again loaded with scrap tin and waste paper. They are literally the slow boats to and from China, Singapore, and Japan, mighty container ships that have managed to elude air pollution regulation for half a century.

After decades of belching bilious emissions skyward from aging engines and highly polluting fuel, these and other trans-oceanic ships may be forced to clean up their act a bit.

As of July 1, any large vessel within 24 nautical miles of California’s ports must switch to somewhat cleaner fuel. Federal and international regulators are slowly following in California’s wake, proposing measures to clean up fuel and engines that if approved, would take effect between 2016 and 2030. But powerful international shippers have sued to overturn the California regulation, and out at sea the freighters will spew the same pollution skyward for years. It will drift hundreds of miles inland as a dirty haze, contributing to cancer, heart and lung disease, asthma and other illness.

Public health experts in greater Los Angeles, which still endures the nation’s worst air pollution, say much more needs to be done, much faster.

“My concern is the timetable. … The emissions are significant here, they’re very large, and I think we need to move forward as quickly as possible. We have a generation of children growing up right now who are breathing air that we could do something about right now, that would change their future health for the better,” said Ed Avol, a professor at the Univ. of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine who researches children’s respiratory health.

“If we say okay, it’s acceptable to wait 10 or 15 years or longer to implement new laws, then basically we’re writing off the health of this generation of children.”

The stakes are high. Southern California is the epicenter of goods movement and its associated health costs in the U.S. Its ports handle 40% of all national consumer imports, and goods movement is a $200 billion to half trillion dollar piece of the economy, depending on the year. Shippers warn that if regulations are put in place too quickly, it could put the region and the U.S. at an economic disadvantage. They say there is also simply not enough clean fuel available to abruptly switch supply.

But the health impacts are enormous as well. State air regulators calculate that pollution from goods movement is linked to as many as 3,700 premature deaths, 62,000 cases of asthma, and more than one million school absences every year. More than 3,000 lives could be saved in the next six years if California’s fuel regulation survives legal challenges. A whopping 27 million Californians are exposed to diesel exhaust from ocean vessels annually, upping their risks of cancer considerably.

Residents near the ports have the highest cancer risks linked to diesel pollution in Los Angeles — an additional 2,900 cases per million people, according to regional regulators.

The big ships are a big piece of the air pollution that continues to blanket the region, experts say, and will play a greater role as other sources are forced to clean up. An estimated 800 deaths annually are tied specifically to ocean vessel emissions, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The sulfur emitted from the ships’ smokestacks collides with oxygen to form gases linked to a host of respiratory diseases. Winds also blow long plumes of sulfur particulate inland across a broad swath of communities, said Avol of USC.

The picture is similar in port communities across the country. George Thurston, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University and one of the nation’s leading air pollution researchers, has linked sulfur diesel emissions to heart attacks, lung cancer and other serious illness. He said the sulfur-based oil used by the container ships is among the worst pollutants. It not only forms dangerous gases, but contributes to tiny particulate specks that sink deep into the lungs, etched with trace minerals like nickel that make them even more dangerous.

“We’ve looked at data that found trace elements of … these metals in oil that were higher in New York City and in many other port areas: Newark, Savannah, Houston, Seattle,” said Thurston. “You see peaks of these trace elements which are associated with increased risks of hospitalization and mortality from fine particulate, causing cardiac deaths, heart attacks, and ischemia.”

Thurston said while it was important to push for international change because shipping pollution is global, the proposed federal regulation “seems too little, too late … Considering these ports are in the middle of metropolitan areas where there are a lot of people living and breathing … it would be much better to have lower levels of sulfur. … The research clearly shows the cleaner the air, the lower the risk of death and hospital admissions.”

The problem is by far the most extreme in southern California. Yet the goods shipped through its ports often move out again on diesel powered trucks and locomotives, headed through low income, nonwhite neighborhoods for warehouses and big box stores across the country. That frustrates health specialists who say the area bears disproportionate impacts.

“We are a donor region, we are donating some of our health and our lives so people in Minneapolis or wherever can have a big screen TV,” said Dr. John Miller, an Anaheim emergency room physician who has testified before Congress and pushed in other ways to strengthen air pollution laws.

Miller, who has worked in emergency rooms for 32 years, said he knows when he drives to work and “I see the line of brown air, and it’s hot,” that some of the day’s severe asthma and heart attacks he treats will be caused by air pollution.

He has read the academic literature on lung cancer, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease, and in recent years, premature births and miscarriage, and finds it deeply frustrating. While it is impossible for him to link specific cases to air pollution, “a certain fraction of the people I see are victims … they don’t make it. And I’m the person who ultimately has to walk down the hall and tell the family.”

He said one recent patient was a timid Hispanic lady who suffered a spontaneous miscarriage, crying and asking him, “‘I want to know sir, why my baby died.’ Well, now we know a certain percentage of these miscarriages are caused by pollution in the air. I don’t know if her baby died that way, but she is representative of a group. … It seems arcane, and yet it means people’s lives.”

Miller has no patience with industry arguments about higher costs and economic advantages. He said the benefits of clearing the air and reducing healthcare costs far outweigh any additional charges on consumer goods. He and others want to know why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in particular, which had to be prodded to act by years of lawsuits, may let marine vessels continue to emit known carcinogens and other deadly pollutants skyward for years.

Indeed, EPA concluded in its proposed regulation of ocean vessels that the cost of using cleaner fuel and newer engines would add about a penny to the price of a new pair of sneakers, and that the benefits of reduced health care expenses and saved lives outweighed industry costs 30 to 1.

Yet the proposed regulations would not be fully implemented until 2030, and in many cases only cover U.S. ships, not the foreign flagged vessels that make 90% of all American port calls. Ship fuel could still contain 1,000 parts per million of sulfur, a huge drop from the 35,000 parts per million allowed under global law, but a far cry from the 15 parts per million that trucks and other diesel vehicles in the U.S. must use. Critics also argue the U.S. proposals are wrongly linked to a similar international proposal for waters off North America.

“Our overall reaction to EPA’s proposal is positive, but this is a very limited step. The rule must be strengthened,” said Peter Greenwald, senior policy advisor for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the region’s air pollution regulator. “This would not regulate 90% of the vessels that carry cargo. What happens if international action is weakened or delayed?”

EPA officials said they are proud of the more than 80% reductions in pollution that would be achieved under the coordinated international and domestic approach. Although California’s regulation has so far withstood legal challenges, federal officials said were not prepared to test whether they had the authority under the U.S. Clean Air Act to directly regulate foreign ships.

“The agency doesn’t feel it has to make that decision,” said Byron Bunker, director of the heavy duty engine center at EPA’s Ann Arbor, Mich., office. He and an agency spokeswoman said large sulfur reductions would be achieved under the joint approach, while concerns about possible clean fuel shortages and timelines for building new, cleaner ships would also be addressed.

“The international standards we are harmonizing on are…based on the proposals we made to the International Maritime Organization,” said Bunker. “And that proposal, we think, is very good for the environment, and achieves the right balance between sulfur reductions and high quality fuel and production capacity.”

Much of EPA’s language directly echoes comments by powerful global shippers at a public hearing on the regulation in Long Beach in August.

“We fully support the EPA proposed regulations … that have the clear intent of harmonizing the United States requirements with the international standards,” said T.L. Garrett, vice-president of Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. The group represents ocean carriers and terminal operators that handle over 90% of container cargo on the West Coast of the United States, or about half of all traffic into those ports.

Garrett said “harmonizing” U.S. regulations with international rules was vital to ensure adequate, safe fuel supply, and to make sure goods flow is not disrupted more than it already has been by the economic downturn.

Far from being criticized, Garrett said, EPA should be commended for spearheading international efforts to bring down levels of ship pollutants.

“It has been done as expeditiously as possible. Every opportunity to push for more stringent regulations that could be taken, has been taken by EPA,” said Garrett. “It concerns us if the U.S. comes out with some dramatically different regulations than other countries, it could create economic problems. It could put the U.S. fleet at an economic disadvantage.”

But residents of southern California ports say they’re the ones at a disadvantage.

“We have basically been told we’re disposable, we’re collateral damage. But I’m not going to lie down,” said Elisa Trujillo, a Long beach resident who also testified at the hearing. “I’m here for all of us who live and work here today. How many more years are you going to take off our lives?”

EPA is accepting public comments on its proposed rule, identified as Docket ID # EPA-HQ-OAR-2007-0121, at The agency is under court order to make a final decision by Dec. 17.

(Originally published at


See also:

The Shipping Industry’s Pollution Problem Part I: Low-Hanging Fruit

The Shipping Industry’s Pollution Problem Part II: A Lack of Authority

The Shipping Industry’s Pollution Problem Part III: Off The Hook

(Photo: Flickr/kla4067/CC BY 2.0)