Ship pollution: EPA ‘not responsive,’ inspector says

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Should the federal government crack down on cancer-causing air emissions from ships? Yes, according to a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general, who says voluntary measures and international negotiations have failed to protect public health.

The report criticizes the EPA for failing to regulate emissions from foreign-flagged vessel in U.S. ports, although these ships account for about 90% of all U.S. port calls. And the agency has only regulated one of several pollutants from ship engines in U.S. flagged vessels, the 86-page report noted.


The inspector general said that EPA officials ‘were not responsive’ to the report’s recommendations that it seek to control air pollution from foreign vessels in U.S. ports under the Clean Air Act, ‘and report any shortfalls to Congress.’

Although the federal government has made progress in controlling diesel emissions from trucks, trains and cargo handling equipment, it has been reluctant to take on marine vessels that have traditionally fallen under international jurisdiction. Bunker fuel, the tar-like sludge used in ships, emits toxic chemicals and smog-forming pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, fine particulate dust, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.

The U.S. has about 360 commercial sea and river ports, but more than 40% of all marine freight imported into the U.S. moves through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. By 2020, many major U.S. ports are expected to double the volume of container traffic they handle, and some will triple the volume.

The health effects in Southern California are particularly acute, with high cancer rates, asthma, other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and premature deaths in neighborhoods near the ports, which are predominantly low-income Latino and African American.

California has not waited for the federal government to act. Last July, state regulators adopted the world’s toughest pollution rules for oceangoing vessels. ‘California’s ports are already using tools such as shore-side power and low-sulfur fuel that EPA could require right now,’ said David Pettit, an Los Angeles attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, noting that air pollution controls adopted by the International Maritime Organization will not take effect until 2015.

-- Margot Roosevelt