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Cargo ships' extra freight: dirty air

The vessels are spewing sulfur oxide 'virtually unchecked' -- more than all land vehicles -- a study finds.

March 23, 2007|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Ocean-going vessels produce greater quantities of sulfur oxide air pollutants than all the world's cars, trucks and buses combined, according to a study released Thursday.

The report by the International Council on Clean Transportation calls for international regulators to move aggressively to curb emissions from "bunker fuel" used by freight vessels that contains an average 27,000 parts per million of sulfur. U.S. standards for diesel trucks and other vehicles limit sulfur fuels to just 15 parts per million to protect public health. One kind of sulfur oxide, sulfur dioxide, can quickly kill if too much is inhaled rapidly. Chronic exposure to lower levels has been linked to respiratory problems.

The report is especially relevant for Southern California. More than 40% of retail goods imported to the U.S. arrive on ships that dock at Los Angeles and Long Beach, often after passing coastal communities in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

"International ships are one of the world's largest, virtually uncontrolled source of air pollution," said Alan C. Lloyd, president of the International Council on Clean Transportation and former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. "Air pollution from diesel trucks and buses in Europe, Japan, and the U.S. has declined steadily for over a decade. At the same time, air pollution from international ships is rising virtually unchecked."

The council comprises about 20 scholars and current or former air-quality and transportation regulators from the U.S., South America, Asia and Europe. They include Margo Oge, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's office of transportation and air quality. A spokesman said the EPA had yet to review the report.

The authors relied on peerreviewed air pollution studies, their own work and government pollution and freight data, according to the council's executive director, Drew Kodjak.

The report found that in 2001, heavy-duty diesel trucks, buses and cars burned more than a billion metric tons of fuel, and emitted 2.2 million metric tons of sulfur oxide. The same year, ocean-going vessels burned 280 million tons of fuel, far less, but emitted 3.4 million metric tons of sulfur oxide, about 17% of the global total.

Ships are also responsible for 3.6 million to 6.5 million metric tons of nitrogen oxide, another pollutant.

The report calls on the International Maritime Organization, an independent branch of the United Nations, to gradually cut allowable sulfur oxide levels by 90%, and allowable nitrogen oxide levels by 95%. In addition, they said, international limits should be developed for fine particles of soot and for carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas widely believed to be contributing to global warming.

International Maritime Organization spokeswoman Natasha Brown said that she had not seen the report but that her group had been discussing improved air-quality standards.

The key committee that could approve changes to the international treaty that covers air pollutants from ships will meet in July, but the soonest any changes could take effect would be in 2009, she said. One hundred thirty-nine member nations could be affected if they sign on. The U.S. has not signed the original international pollution controls adopted in 1997.

Brown said that although the international body had been criticized for adopting "lowest common denominator" regulations, they were the maximum achievable by a group of so many nations.

"There's no point in having standards so high that no one will agree to them," she said. "Nonetheless, there is widespread recognition that improvements need to be made" to reduce sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide.

Noting that ships carry 90% of the world's freight, Brown said it was not surprising that they would have higher levels of some pollutants.

But Kodjak noted the data showed ships were using far less fuel while emitting more sulfur oxide than land vehicles, and "dramatic" amounts of nitrogen oxide.

"No matter how much freight they ship, the technology is available to make improvements," he said. "The reason why there is such a disparity is not because of the amount of freight they move, but because they've largely been unregulated."

The report did conclude that a decade or more might be needed to implement changes in oil refineries to produce cleaner fuel and to install more-effective pollution-control equipment on ships that the international body might approve.

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