In its 2004 report entitled “Harboring Pollution: The Dirty Truth About U.S. Ports,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said seaports were one of the least regulated industries, and consequently one of the highest-polluting of all economic enterprises.
Ports, ocean carriers, tugboat operators, marine terminals, motor carriers and railroads have done an about-face since then. Every transportation mode — sometimes voluntarily, although often in response to regulations or lawsuits — has reduced harmful diesel emissions from its port operations.
The environmental push is truly international, with ports in Europe, Asia and the Southern Hemisphere also under pressure to minimize the health risks associated with ocean transportation. Vessel operators are likewise under the gun. The International Maritime Organization has adopted rules to reduce health-related pollutants and is now turning to greenhouse gas emissions from vessels.
While all vessels will be affected, container ships are a key target because of the extensive reach of intermodal transportation. After being unloaded from ships, containers move from seaports by truck or rail — and often both — with the impact of diesel pollution reaching far into residential areas.
According to the NRDC report, vessels account for 32 percent to 43 percent of the nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions at ports. Trucks accounts for 31 to 40 percent of the nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions, cargo-handling equipment about 24 percent and trains 2 to 4 percent.
Numerous studies have found a direct correlation between high levels of diesel pollution and elevated risks for asthma and other respiratory diseases, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and premature death.
Because some of the earliest studies of diesel emissions occurred in Southern California, Los Angeles and Long Beach felt the impact of regulations and lawsuits before other U.S. ports. It is noteworthy how rapidly the ports responded, and it is startling how effective the ports’ early measures have been to reduce pollution.
Los Angeles-Long Beach responded to strict regulations at the state level under the California Environmental Quality Act. And port expansion in Southern California came to a halt because lawsuits by environmental and community groups challenged virtually every environmental impact report filed by the ports earlier in this decade.
Los Angeles and Long Beach in 2006 adopted their joint Clean Air Action Plan that pledged to reduce harbor-generated pollution by 45 percent within five years. Truck pollution was to be reduced by more than 80 percent by Jan. 1, 2012. The CAAP now sets at least the minimal requirements for marine terminal expansion in the harbor.
While the pollution-reduction goals appeared fanciful to some, Los Angeles and Long Beach are way ahead of schedule, at least in reducing truck pollution. Because of the rapid deployment of clean-diesel and alternative fuel trucks since the launch of the clean-trucks plan on Oct. 1, 2008, fully 85 percent of all containers are hauled by trucks that comply with the nation’s strictest rules governing diesel emissions, Long Beach noted.
“The ports got it right,” said David Pettit, staff attorney in Los Angeles for the NRDC, who would like to see other ports adopt clean-trucks plans. “It has worked here — ahead of schedule.”
Other ports are doing just that. A survey conducted by Sarah Flagg, seaport air quality program manager at the Port of Seattle, found that 10 North American ports on all three coasts are at various stages of developing clean-trucks programs.
Scientifically, much of the work needed to slash diesel emissions from heavy-duty trucks has been accomplished for the ports. As a result of the Environmental Protection Agency requirements for low-sulfur fuel, clean-diesel fuel is now sold nationwide. In addition, engine requirements for model-year 2007 clean-diesel trucks meet the strictest emission standards in effect, and the 2010 trucks will be even cleaner.
While certain elements of the Los Angeles-Long Beach clean-trucks plan are held up in court due to litigation, no group has challenged the plan’s environmental measures. Therefore, in less than a year, motor carriers have introduced into their harbor fleet more than 5,000 clean-diesel and alternative fuel trucks.
The Los Angeles-Long Beach clean-trucks plan has resulted in a significant reduction in emissions and improved the age of the truck fleet considerably, said Bruce Anderson, principal for Star Crest Consulting, which performs pollution inventory studies for ports nationwide.
While the clean-trucks plan requires all trucks operating in the harbor on Jan. 1, 2012, to be 2007 models or newer, port executives in Los Angeles-Long Beach believe that goal may be met in the coming year.
The Southern California ports achieved a rapid turnover of the harbor trucking fleet through a combination of a truck ban, a $35-per-TEU dirty-truck fee and subsidies to motor carriers to purchase new trucks.
Most other ports developing clean-trucks plans market the fact that their programs do not contain truck fees. They want to avoid the diversion of cargo that has taken place in Southern California since the fees were established.
Many of the ports are making their clean-trucks plans voluntary or are setting longer timelines for retiring old, polluting trucks. While the Los Angeles-Long Beach deadline is Jan. 1, 2012, Seattle and Tacoma will require all trucks to be 2007-model or newer in 2017.
Pollution caused by drayage trucks varies from port to port. According to Flagg’s study, trucks account for almost 40 percent of the particulate matter emissions in Los Angeles-Long Beach, compared with 12 percent in New York-New Jersey, 7 percent in Oakland, 5.6 percent in Houston and 3 percent or less in Seattle-Tacoma.
Likewise, the extent of port-generated pollution as a percentage of total regional pollution varies widely because of port operations as well as other sources of emissions in each region.
Air regulators in Southern California and the Pacific Northwest years ago attacked pollution from power plants, manufacturing facilities and other stationary sources of pollution, so ports stand out as polluters on the West Coast. The ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach and Seattle-Tacoma account for 7 to 9 percent of total regional pollution in those locations.
By contrast, Houston, with its oil refineries, and the New York metropolitan area, where the use of coal and heating oil are common, have large amounts of pollution from non-port sources. The Port of Houston accounts for 3.4 percent of total pollution in that region. The Port Authority of New York-New Jersey accounts for only 1 percent of regional pollution there, according to Flagg’s report.
All of the transportation modes in Southern California have therefore felt the heavy hand of regulators before their counterparts in other regions. Marine terminal operators in Los Angeles-Long Beach, for example, have used electric shore-side cranes for many years, while some ports are still electrifying their cranes.
Marine terminal operators in Southern California have installed diesel oxidation catalysts on hundreds of pieces of yard equipment and have experimented with a number of types of alternative-fuel yard tractors. Other ports, to varying degrees, are now utilizing similar measures to reduce diesel emissions from terminal operations, Anderson said.
Similarly, tugboat operators and railroads in Southern California have re-powered dozens of units to lower harmful diesel emissions. BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad signed a memorandum of understanding with local air quality regulators to deploy their newest, cleanest locomotives in Southern California as those units are introduced into their fleets.
John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents terminal operators and shipping lines, said the maritime industry in California should be given more credit by ports, air quality regulators and environmental organizations for the measures it has implemented, often voluntarily.
In fact, by pushing ahead quickly with fees and penalties and at times requiring measures that produce minimal benefits but heavy costs, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have experienced a loss of market share in recent years.
“Ports need to exercise environmental policy based on real science, not political science,” McLaurin said.
As global operators, shipping lines must answer to regulations adopted by the International Maritime Organization. The IMO already has a timetable for reducing nitrous oxide, particulate matter and sulfur oxide emissions, the pollutants associated directly with health risks. The IMO also is considering regulations to reduce carbon emissions, or greenhouse gases, from ocean shipping.
Some ports have acted to further reduce vessel pollution in their regions. Los Angeles and Long Beach, for example, encourage vessel operators to steam at a slower speed within 20 miles of the coast. This low-cost measure produces an immediate and noticeable contribution to reducing vessel pollution, Anderson noted.
California ports also are pushing vessel operators to use low-sulfur distillate fuel in their main as well as auxiliary engines. T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, said that in terms of getting the “biggest bang for the buck,” switching to distillate fuel is an effective measure.
Carriers are also voluntarily deploying other measures, such as APL’s use of slide valves on vessel engines. Because vessel operators regularly change the valves on their engines anyway, this is likewise a cost-effective, immediate way to reduce pollution.
Some measures are more controversial to implement because of their high costs. Los Angeles and Long Beach within 10 years will have all of their marine terminals equipped with shore-side electrical power and will expect vessel operators to “cold iron” at berth.
This measure is costly for ports as well as vessel operators, and on its own will not pass a cost-benefit analysis. To be economically justified, the health risks and premature deaths associated with port pollution must be included in the cold-ironing equation, Garrett said.
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at firstname.lastname@example.org.