Much More Could Be Done to Clean Up Port Pollution, Study Says

Random Lengths News | October 2, 2004
Empowerment Is Message For Communities

Last March, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Coalition for Clean Air released an environmental “report card” for the top ten U.S. container ports, encompassing a wide range of environmental problems. On September 10, they released a far more ambitious follow-up study focused on remedying those problems, “Harboring Pollution: Strategies to Clean Up U.S. Ports.”

The report grew out of NRDCs work on the China Shipping lawsuit and settlement negotiations.

“There was a lot they could be doing that they weren’t,” explained NRDC staff scientist Diane Bailey, a principle author of the report. “We decided to look at other container ports, for the purpose of comparison., and to find out if this was a problem throughout the industry.”

The results surprised them.

“We realized that marine ports were enormous sources of pollution, and they are virtually unregulated,” Bailey said. “They can be larger sources than traditional sources, such as power plants or refineries. Those are permitted, but ports don’t need any permits,” which is why they remain so dirty.

The report examines regulatory approaches, comprehensive planning for new terminals and terminal expansion, and water pollution, but devotes most of its attention to air pollution reduction technologies.

The most severe pollution comes from particulate matter (PM) and oxides of sulfur (SOx) and nitrogen (NOx). Collectively, the top ten U.S. container ports produce more NOx than 3.2 million cars, more PM10 (PM smaller than 10 microns) than 8.1 million cars, and more SOx than 18.5 million cars.

Marine fuels have extraordinarily high sulfur content—up to 5 percent, or 50,000 parts per million (ppm), but averaging 27,000 ppm. In contrast, California’s on-road diesel standard is 150 ppm—over 99 percent cleaner—and will drop to 15 ppm in 2006. Just reducing marine fuel to 3,000 ppm would reduce SOx 89 percent, and reduce PM 63 percent.

But “Harboring Pollution” is not touting a single “magic bullet” for reducing pollution. It takes a broad, multi-faceted approach, but does develop clear themes and core strategies. This is particularly evident in dealing with different air pollution sources, such as cargo ships, cruise ships, tugboats, cargo handling equipment, trucks, trains, etc. These are summarized in “five R’s”:

* Replace the olderst, most polluting vessels, vehicles and equipment with the cleanest available new models.

* Repower vessels, vehicles and equipment that have significant useful life left, swapping cleaner new engines for dirty, old ones.

* Retrofit exhaust systems with emissions controls (also called after-treatments).

* Refuel engines with cleaner fuel—a requirement for some after-treatments to work.

* Reduce idling—which wastes millions of gallons of fuel, as well as polluting the air.

For each different kind of pollution source, the report examines options, provides cost-benefit analyses, and cites examples of programs already in place, or about to be implemented.

“There are so many measures out there around the world,” Bailey remarked. But she was disappointed at “how little there is being done in the U.S., compared to Europe.”

Still, there are numerous examples from the U.S. as well, though most of those are the results of litigation, such as the China Shipping case. The Port of Oakland is a leader on several fronts as well—also as a result of litigation.

The report’s most important finding, according to Bailey, is that “Ports are not doing nearly enough to clean up the pollution they’re creating, and that regulation is called for. They’ve had a voluntary program for years,” and that has clearly failed. Ports need broad regulation to help them do right. “It’s difficult for one port to implement costly measure when their competitors aren’t,” she explained.

The report carries a range of messages for different audiences, Bailey noted. It tells port officials, “Their day of being under the radar are over. They need to start paying attention to their environmental effects the same way other industries have.” For the shipping industry, the message is similar, “they can no longer go about daily business without paying attention to environmental impacts.”

For politicians and other policy-makers, it’s “A loud call for them to step in and regulate this industry they way they’ve regulated other industries.”

For environmental activists, the message is “we need to pay more attention to the ports. The marine ports are just the tip of the iceberg. We need to solve this greater problem of how were moving goods around, in better way and cleaner way.”

And, for community members, “The message is one of empowerment. If the community organizes, and acts together, if the port is impacting them in a negative way, they have the power to bring about change, and get the port authorities to clean up.”

Harboring Pollution is available online. A link is available at

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