Targeting one of the biggest sources of air pollution, federal and state regulators moved forward Wednesday with plans to slash emissions from big diesel-powered ships entering U.S. coastal areas.
Under rules that took effect Wednesday, the roughly 2,000 ocean-going vessels that enter California ports each year must switch to fuel with lower sulfur content before coming within 24 nautical miles of the state's coast.
The use of cleaner fuel will yield immediate reductions in harmful air pollutants such as diesel particulate matter, sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, according to the California Air Resources Board, which issued the regulations.
The state plan will mandate an even cleaner fuel starting in 2012.
California, home to some of the dirtiest air districts in the nation, has traditionally led the U.S. in innovative pollution rules, not only affecting ships but also automobiles and power plants. About 40% of the nation's imported goods move through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, creating massive emissions from trucks and vessels.
"This new measure will help coastal residents breathe easier and reduce pollution in our oceans and waterways at the same time," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said.
Also Wednesday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed long-anticipated standards on the engines and fuel of U.S.-flagged vessels, which would lower fuel sulfur content below 1,000 parts per million -- matching California's 2012 requirement -- within 200 miles of the U.S. coast, starting in 2015.
The proposal is part of an international effort to reduce shipping emissions under the Marine Pollution Treaty. The EPA proposal would also mandate improved engine technology to decrease emissions of nitrogen oxides.
National environmental groups applauded the federal proposal.
"These ships are like giant smokestacks on the sea," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "They cause pollution and public health problems not only for coastal communities but for millions who live inland."
The California rules, which kick in before the federal standards, apply not only to U.S.-flagged ships but to all ships entering state waters. "We need the health benefits in the interim," said Mike Scheible, the air board's deputy executive officer.
An estimated 3,600 premature deaths will be avoided under the state regulations between now and 2015.
The shipping industry has objected to regulation by states, arguing that international bodies should establish maritime rules.
But T.L. Garrett, vice president of the San Francisco-based Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn., an alliance of more than 60 industry organizations, said Wednesday that the group's members were "fully prepared to comply" with the new California rules.
The shipping alliance had filed a lawsuit against the Air Resources Board, saying state attempts to regulate shipping violated federal law.
A federal judge Tuesday upheld the state's ability to set its own rules regarding clean fuel.
Still, the group favors international standards that "will bring uniform and meaningful emission reductions" rather than a "random patchwork of local regulations," John McLaurin, president of PMSA, said in a written statement.