Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new law that would require cargo ships to use cleaner fuels by 2020 when they are within 200 miles of the North American coast. (The state of California tried to introduce a similar law a little over a year ago but it was shot down in federal court.) All large freight ships visiting U.S. ports would be subject to the rule, but the changes would be phased in over time, as they would be costly to the shipping industry. The law, if approved by the International Maritime Organization in October, would decrease sulfur emissions by as much as 80 percent. For residents in places like Long Beach and Los Angeles, where the fifth largest port industrial complex in the world has won it the title “diesel death zone,” this proposal is long overdue. Every year, 33,000 premature deaths in California are linked to cargo ship emissions from the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
By 2020, the costs to the shipping industry are estimated to increase by $1.8 billion. The EPA believes the costs will be passed onto the American consumer. Americans generally start grumbling when told they will pay more for goods, be it food or clothing or anything else. But the cost is not nearly as high as the public might imagine. When the EPA did the math, they estimated an increase of just one penny for a pair of tennis shoes, for example, and three pennies for a bushel of grain. (The estimate for one 20-foot shipping container of goods is about $18, according to the EPA website.) With such miniscule price increases to the consumer, it seems that this is a proposal that could have been introduced decades ago. But part of the problem is that ocean-going vessels are regulated by the International Maritime Organization, a branch of the UN that is known for being notoriously slow because it’s made up of 167 member governments. Still, in Southern California, agencies like the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) and local advocacy groups have been putting pressure on the EPA to control vessel emissions without relying solely on international standards. It looks as if that pressure has finally produced a result.
When compared to the public health crisis faced by the residents of Long Beach and Los Angeles, where cancer, heart disease, asthma and other respiratory illnesses have been linked to port emissions, the increase is a drop in the bucket. Every year, billions of dollars in health care costs are absorbed by residents in the harbor communities that border the ports. The culprit of this health crisis is what is called “bunker fuel,” an inexpensive, tarry petroleum sludge burned by cargo ship engines. Sulfur content in bunker fuel can be as high as 27,000 parts per million. By 2020, these ships would be required to burn fuel with sulfur content that is 1,000 parts per million or less. By contrast, diesel fuel used in on-road motor vehicles in the U.S. must contain sulfur content that is 15 parts per million or less.
Aside from toxicity to humans, ship emissions are also lethal for the earth’s atmosphere. According to a survey by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), in 2007 cargo ships spewed 434,000 tons of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere. (Ships release more sulfur dioxide than all of the world’s cars, trucks and buses combined, according to a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation.) The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are the single largest source of toxic emissions in the state of California.
Hamida Kinge has written about everything from food security to ocean acidification to luxury cell phones. She was a 2009 fellow of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment and a 2008/09 reporting fellow of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She has contributed to Next American City, Grist, Philadelphia City Paper and U.R.B. domestically as well as Europe-based magazines Essential Macau and Straight No Chaser. For the past year, she has been teaching English as a foreign language to international students and business professionals. Hamida has also been a volunteer English tutor for the International Center in New York.