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Tuesday, September 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Bush cut some diesel pollution but let big ships keep spewing
By Craig Welch
Through a filament of haze they emerge: containerships long enough to ferry the Space Needle, some belching as much exhaust as 12,000 cars, cutting through the bay toward the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach.
"I count five," said Tom Murphy, environmental-assessment manager with the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District. "And we've only been here 20 minutes."
During a decade in which scientists learned diesel pollution was even worse for our health than once thought, Murphy's agency made an astounding discovery: Ocean-going ships that cruised past Santa Barbara's coast each year emitted more smog-forming pollution than all vehicles on the county's roads combined.
Yet the Bush administration derailed efforts to cut emissions from cargo carriers, tankers and cruise ships a decision with great impact on the West Coast and the Puget Sound region. The lumbering ocean-going giants are now the country's least-controlled source of bad air.
Bush's record on clean-air rules has won him praise and criticism. He was criticized for refusing to cap carbon-dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming but was lauded for his decision to slash diesel pollution from many types of engines. He changed power-plant rules affecting emissions, a move favored by industry, and has balked at forcing big ships to clean their smokestack pollutants.
From the Northwest to the Gulf of Mexico, ships are now a significant and growing source of air pollution. The federal government estimates global shipping will double or triple by 2020. In 15 years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) projects, ships will account for at least a quarter of the dirty-particle exhaust produced by all vehicles in the Puget Sound region.
And those estimates pre-date Seattle's cruise-ship boom, which has seen the number of sailings grow from a few in 1999 to at least 150 annually.
Worldwide, ships also are a leading source of smog-forming nitrogen oxides. Their exhaust contains dozens of known carcinogens and is high in particulate matter, fine particles of pollution that lodge in the lungs and can cause asthma, respiratory problems and premature death.
The vessels are powered by low-quality diesel bunker fuel, so dirty each particle of exhaust legally can be 3,000 times higher in sulfur than the fuel soon to be used by new diesel trucks. Even industry lobbyists have said international ship-fuel standards for sulfur, a primary component of acid rain, are ridiculously high.
Ships in the Los Angeles/Long Beach ports already produce nearly as much smog as Southern California's 350 largest industrial polluters combined. An estimated one in every 1,000 residents who have lived in nearby neighborhoods their entire lives may contract cancer from the bad air, one study shows.
And in Santa Barbara, total air pollution is expected to get worse even as cars, trucks, trains and buses get cleaner.
The reason: Ship emissions are getting worse faster than other sources of pollution are getting cleaned up.
Crackdown gets canceled
Recognizing the threat, the EPA in 2002 prepared to dramatically curb emissions generated by U.S. ships. It argued engine upgrades would result in significant reductions in pollution and would be relatively inexpensive for most shipping companies.
Officials also were building a case to assert U.S. authority to regulate the exhaust from foreign ships, which account for 95 percent of calls on U.S. ports. "The size of the contribution from such vessels to emissions, and in particular the significance of those emissions in coastal areas and port cities, warrants [regulating] foreign vessels," the draft document said.
But when the agency hashed out its proposal with the White House's Office of Management and Budget, the landscape changed.
When the revised EPA draft was published in May 2002, there had been a major policy shift: Gone was the crackdown. Instead the draft recommended adopting emission standards for U.S. ships that mirrored what ships already were doing. By the time the rules were made final, in 2003, the administration had agreed to put off any action on foreign-flagged ships until 2007.
The Bush administration argued that working with other nations over the next several years to establish an international pollution standard would be the most productive and effective approach. It proposed the U.S. government do this by negotiating within the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a worldwide body that governs shipping.
"It's not a bad strategy," said Karl Simon, a deputy administrator in EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality.
Shipping and oil lobbyists were thrilled.
Jonathan Benner, lobbyist with the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, said he had visited with the State Department, EPA, Office of Management and Budget, and members of Congress to make the case that the United States should not act alone in setting ship-emission standards.
Since most ships travel internationally, stiffer rules for those who travel in U.S. waters could throw a monkey wrench into world trade, Benner said. "This wasn't a case of nefarious industry twiddling the dials of the regulatory process ... to get what it wanted," he said. "They all recognized there was a logic to what we were saying."
But clean-air regulators from Delaware to Florida and Houston to Oakland see it differently.
"We were very disappointed, I can say that," said Murphy, in Santa Barbara. "I don't think EPA went as far as they could have."
Dave Kircher, air-resources manager with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, agreed.
"It's unclear to me why we would shy away from regulating these ships," Kircher said.
"There's a real inequity there; you and I are paying extra money and driving very, very, clean cars while ocean-going vessels are basically getting a free ride."
He and others argued that just as Congress had required safer ships in U.S. waters after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the United States should cut emissions regardless of where the ships come from.
"We acknowledge the value of international rules," Dennis McLerran, executive director at Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, wrote EPA in 2002. But "we need EPA to protect the health of our citizens."
The regulators also feared there is no guarantee internationally negotiated pollution reductions will ever come.
"The [IMO] is heavily influenced by the shipping industry itself, so they haven't been known for being particularly progressive," McLerran said.
Ship pollution explodes
The about-face in EPA's plans to cut marine-diesel emissions got little attention outside air-pollution-control circles. And no one understands better than Murphy why sunny Santa Barbara is the poster child for cities choking on smog from passing ships.
Nearly 7,113 ships a year twice the number that visit Puget Sound chug along the county's 130-mile coastline, barely a dozen miles off shore. And ship exhaust is at its worst when vessel engines are running at full bore.
"They're at high power, under heavy load, for a long time," Murphy said.
In the late 1990s, after years of struggling to meet federal standards for ozone pollution, Murphy's agency used a database of ships to review emissions statistics for every vessel. Initial results threw them for a loop: Ships were producing one-third of the nitrogen oxides released each day in Santa Barbara County more pollution than is produced each day by most major ports in the country.
Earlier this year EPA determined that 474 counties across the country none in Washington already violate federal smog guidelines. In the Puget Sound area, diesel exhaust linked to lung, bladder and kidney cancers, heart disease and asthma is already high enough that 500 of every 1 million people exposed to it over a lifetime can be expected to get cancer.
While Puget Sound agencies have not done the detailed work of Santa Barbara, clean-air officials here point to work recently finished in Vancouver, B.C.
"Emission from ships in the Port of Vancouver were shown to be greater than all the diesel trucks and buses on the roads, and we project they'll increase rapidly," said Morris Mennell, with Environment Canada. "Container traffic is expected to triple between 2002 and 2020."
McLerran, at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, said "Our interest was heightened by the work in B.C. They found they had a much larger problem than they'd thought in the past, and they're seeing some of the same ships heading in and out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca."
Meanwhile, in a study for the state of Washington's Department of Ecology, James Corbett, who examines ship air pollution at the University of Delaware, found marine-vessel pollution on the Columbia and Snake River system was 2.6 times worse than previously thought and contributed significantly to haze in the Columbia River Gorge.
"There really are places where a waterway can produce as much air pollution as a highway," Corbett said.
EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt said that lost in the uproar over the Bush administration's actions on air policy is an important fact: Nationwide, air, by most measurable standards, is getting substantially healthier to breathe.
"We're cleaning the air," Leavitt said. "If you go back 30 years ago, the air is cleaner. It's cleaner than last year. Next year it will be even cleaner still."
The administration followed through on a program started under President Clinton to scale back diesel car and truck exhaust. Bush expanded those rules to include everything from tractors to trains and small ships rules that will, by 2012, require them to use the same superclean fuel as diesel cars.
"The Diesel Rule is one of the most consequential mandatory air-pollution-reduction programs in the history of the Clean Air Act," said James Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
But Blake Early, a policy expert with the American Lung Association, said given all that has been learned about risks from dirty air, the Bush administration should have cleaned up more of it faster. The administration instead sometimes seemed more concerned about helping business, he said.
"The principal concern the Lung Association annoyingly focuses on is that the rate of improvement is too slow," Early said. "That's just not acceptable."
"We will pay a terrible political price if we undercut or walk away from enforcement cases," EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman wrote in an e-mail to Vice President Dick Cheney on May 4, 2001. "It will be hard to refute the charge that we are deciding not to enforce the Clean Air Act."
The administration went on to propose an alternative program to control power-plant emissions, this one using free-market techniques the administration says would cut emissions up to 65 percent by 2015. When its legislative proposal part of a package called "Clear Skies" stalled, the White House moved to make that power-plant change itself, though it has not yet been put in place.
Eric Schaeffer, the former head of EPA enforcement, was one of a handful of key officials who left the agency disgusted with administration actions on air policies. Schaeffer, who left in 2002, said many of the new administration proposals are still just that proposals.
"The biggest problem of all is it ain't here yet," he said. "They're trying to run out the clock talking about all the good things they're going to do."
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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