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Boxer says EPA stalling measure to clear ports' air

At a hearing in L.A., the senator says the agency is delaying cleaner-fuel mandates for the benefit of the international shipping industry.

August 10, 2007|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Joined by a chorus of California and local officials, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer accused federal air regulators Thursday of stalling on rules for highly polluting ocean vessels and said Congress must act instead.

The California Democrat, chairwoman of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, held a hearing at the Port of Los Angeles to highlight the crippling health effects of freighter ships on communities near the port and to push for passage of legislation she has proposed with fellow California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

But shipping industry representatives and federal air officials said international regulations are in the works that might be implemented just as quickly and would have a more effective global reach.

More than 3,000 huge freighters stream into Southern California's ports each year, making them one of the region's largest sources of air pollution, and traffic is projected to double in coming years. The ships, which use dirty "bunker" fuel made from the dregs of petroleum refining, emit more than half of all sulfur in the region. Sulfur contributes to cancer-causing diesel soot and other dangerous air pollution. An estimated 5,400 premature deaths annually in Southern California are linked to air pollution, along with millions of asthma attacks and missed school and workdays.

"We must set standards now," Boxer said. "The Bush administration is waiting for international negotiations to produce tighter standards, but those negotiations were recently delayed for at least another year. We must stop wasting time."

Boxer said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson and his staff were delaying so many initiatives for industry's benefit at the expense of public health, including this one, that "they ought to be renamed the Environmental Pollution Agency."

EPA spokesmen said the agency has proposed strict controls for oceangoing vessels but wants to see them ratified by the International Maritime Organization, an arm of the United Nations. Currently the IMO allows 45,000 parts per million of sulfur in ship fuel. Both the EPA's proposal and Boxer's legislation would slash that to 1,000 parts per million, requiring either the use of cleaner fuel or technology to scrub pollutants from dirty fuel.

"Pollution knows no political or geographical boundaries, and the current proposal to harmonize emissions standards at ports worldwide would deliver cleaner air to all Americans," said Jessica Emond, the agency's deputy press secretary. "EPA expects to make significant progress on this proposal over the next year."

U.S. officials and others had high hopes that a tough new international standard would be passed this year, but international marine officials ordered a year of study on competing proposals

T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn. in Long Beach, said that although he believed the EPA could enact national regulations applying to foreign vessels in U.S. waters, it would be better to have tough, new standards applied internationally.

The group, which represents nearly all marine shippers using West Coast ports, has sued the California Air Resources Board to overturn a new regulation that requires vessels to use cleaner fuel within 24 nautical miles of the coast. Nonetheless, Garrett said all shippers are voluntarily complying with the rule, and some, such as Maersk shipping lines, have switched to cleaner fuel in their main engines.

"Bottom line, I think what struck me at today's hearing is how close we are on a lot of the overall issues," Garrett said, noting that Boxer's and the EPA's proposals are nearly identical, and either could be in place by 2010, but probably not before. "We acknowledge the problem, and the industry is proactively working toward solutions," he said.

California air board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Riverside County Supervisor S. Roy Wilson, Long Beach Mayor Robert Foster and the heads of the L.A. and Long Beach ports testified at the hearing in support of Boxer's legislation and their desire to ensure that other U.S. ports develop regulations as strict as California's, to keep business on a level playing field while saving lives.

Two doctors also testified about the grave health effects of port-related air pollution, as did Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte), who has proposed companion legislation in the House. Boxer declined to speculate on the bills' chances.

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janet.wilson@latimes.com

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