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Stacked Decks: Trading Air Quality for Global Trade.

Global trade threatens the oceans, the climate, and public health

Standing on the docks of almost any major harbor in the US today, one is struck by the astounding profusion of vessels large and small making their way across our waters. These range from oceangoing ships, commuter ferries, tugboats, and barges to dredges, sailboats, jet skis, windsurfers, and even the occasional whale.

Unlike the intermittent traffic jams on our freeways, however, this one runs day and night and never ends. Across North America, waterborne traffic is skyrocketing as a result of global trade agreements, and cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle are leading the way.

Like the big 18-wheel trucks on the highway, the worst maritime offenders are the big ships -- oil tankers, container ships, cruise liners, and cargo vessels. There are simply more of these ships on the water than ever before. Between 1983 and 1998, seaborne trade rose 70 percent worldwide, resulting in more than 92,000 vessels plying the world's oceans and seas.

Ships' currently carry 95 percent (by cargo weight) of all foreign trade. With global trade increasing as a result of WTO agreements, shipping industry consultants project that large vessel traffic will nearly triple in the next 20 years.

Despite their respectable energy efficiency per-ton-of-cargo-carried, large ocean-going vessels are one of the biggest pollution sources in the United States, and the only completely unregulated transportation source.

According to Bluewater Network's latest report, "A Stacked Deck: Air Pollution from Ships," these big ships discharge 273,000 tons of nitrogen oxides in the US each year. The failure of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and international agencies to regulate these maritime behemoths allows them to belch massive amounts of diesel particles and nitrogen and sulfur oxides across the world's oceans and ports -- enough to cause smog at sea (See chart).


These unregulated emissions make ships a major factor in global warming, acid rain, and smog. New studies by Carnegie Mellon University show that ships account for 14 percent of global nitrogen oxide emissions and 16 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions from all petroleum sources. Sulfur emissions, which cause airborne particle pollution, have been implicated in creating low-level clouds that mask human-caused global warming. It was this veil of sulfur that led scientists to underestimate the actual extent of global warming in atmospheric models.

The World's Dirtiest Fuel

A big part of the problem is that these vessels burn bunker oil, the dirtiest and least expensive form of fuel available today. Bunker oil is the name given to the undesirable chemicals that refiners remove from oil in order to create high-grade petroleum products such as jet fuel, gasoline, and diesel fuel.

Bunker oil contains extremely high concentrations of toxic compounds that are banned from use in all other industrial and consumer applications. The result is that ship fuels have up to 1,000 times more sulfur than the diesel fuel used in buses, trucks, and cars.

High-sulfur fuels create more airborne particles, which means that ship crews and dockworkers, passengers on cruise ships, and people living near major ports are exposed to damaging health effects such as asthma, respiratory ailments, and possible early death.

Given that the majority of ship and dockworkers are minorities, this raises a number of very serious environmental justice issues. Bluewater Network and members of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council raised these concerns with the EPA in 1999, but to no avail.

As commercial vessel operations increase, so does smog in urban areas. In San Diego, Boston, Los Angeles, Baltimore, New York, and other major ports, ships account for as much as 17 percent of all nitrogen emissions during summer ozone peaks. If vessel traffic triples as a result of global trade, smog emissions from ships will triple as well.

With so much at stake, in 1997 the International Maritime Organization (an organ of the UN) made a fruitless attempt to clean up the ocean's dirtiest vessels by adding an annex to the International Convention on the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL, Annex VI).

But this effort is unlikely to be ratified by the world's shipping nations, due to the powerful leverage that US and European shipowners -- who seek the lowest possible labor and environmental costs -- wield over the flag-of-convenience nations such as Panama, Malta, the Bahamas, and Liberia where they register their ships.

Even in the highly unlikely event of ratification, the EPA estimates that emissions from large ships will continue to grow significantly as a consequence of MARPOL's extremely weak standards.

The Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 give the EPA a clear mandate to independently regulate ship emissions to protect the environment, public health and safety. In February, Bluewater Network, represented by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit in the US Circuit Court in Washington, DC to force the EPA to set tough emissions standards for ocean-going ships. We filed an initial brief in July and are currently discussing terms of settlement with the EPA.

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Author:Long, Russell
Publication:Earth Island Journal
Geographic Code:0JINT
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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