Cleaning the Air Around the Ports 

The shipping industry hopes to undo the state's newest clean-air rule.

In order to clear the air on land, California is forcing oceangoing vessels at least 24 miles off its coast to burn much cleaner fuels. The landmark rule took effect July 1, but not without a fight. And now the shipping industry is trying to get the courts to let them go back to using the cheaper, dirtier bunker fuel.

"It's sludge!" said Melissa Lin Perrella, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which helped defend the new rule in court this year. Perrella noted that bunker fuel, a type of diesel with a very high sulfur content, can be as much as 3,000 times dirtier than the diesel fuel used by semitrucks. "The public health benefits of these rules are huge," she said. "Over the course of just the next six years, over 3,500 premature deaths will be avoided in the state of California."

Forcing ships to use cleaner fuel will be phased in over the next three years, but significant emission reductions will be immediate. According to the California Air Resources Board, thirteen tons per day of toxic particulate matter now emitted from the diesel engines of oceangoing ships will be eliminated by the rule. Diesel exhaust contains a variety of harmful gases and more than forty other known cancer-causing substances. Currently, the California Air Resources Board says that diesel particulate-matter emissions from oceangoing vessels put more than seven million people in California at higher cancer risk when they are exposed over their lifetime.

The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a shipping industry group, tried in April to block the rule from taking effect. The association argued in federal court that the state didn't have the authority to reach eighteen miles beyond its territory to regulate what fuels could be burned in ships' engines. But the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which serves portions of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, filed a brief in the case stating that it would not be able to meet its federally mandated air quality standards without the rule, because ship emissions are such a significant portion of California's air pollution. The district court denied the shipping association's motion, but the group is now working to try to have an appeal heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A spokesperson for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association could not be reached to explain their opposition to the rule. But according to the California Air Resources Board, the cleaner fuel will add an extra $30,000 to the cost of a California port visit — roughly 1 percent of the typical fuel costs for a vessel crossing the Pacific Ocean. And there are technical concerns as well. According to Nathan Menefee, author of, the requirement to switch from heavy bunker fuel to lighter cleaner fuel mid-voyage is wreaking havoc in the engine rooms of the ships that are affected. Menefee, who is a Lieutenant with the US Coast Guard, added that the implementation of the rule "has resulted in several instances of ships losing propulsion while entering or exiting California ports, creating a dangerous situation and risk of a large-scale oil spill in coastal waters."

Meanwhile, in West Oakland, the neighborhood closest to Oakland's port, the health impacts from diesel particulate matter are considerable, as are the various sources of the pollution. The freeway, the rail yard, and the port all contribute. But according to an Air Resources Board study of the problem in 2008, about 13 percent of the diesel particulate matter in West Oakland comes directly from ships at berth and in transit.

Bay Area Air Quality Management District employees say they are already working to enforce the landmark rule by boarding ships in the Port of Oakland and conducting onboard inspections of fuels. Their goal is to repeat inspections at least once a month.

Spokespersons for the California Air Resources Board say the same thing is happening up and down the coast. Inspectors are boarding ships and checking the required fuel logs to make sure the vessels have switched over from bunker fuel to the lighter, cleaner, low-sulfur fuel. After the logs are checked, inspectors review the ship's receipts to make sure that the cleaner fuel was purchased. Then they visit the engine room and sample the fuel from the low-sulfur fuel tank. Samples are sent to a lab where they're analyzed for sulfur content. So far, the Air Board says no violations of the rule have been issued. The severity of the fine will depend on a variety of factors, according to the air board, including whether the violation was accidental or how heavy the illegally burned fuel mixture was.

The California Air Resources Board estimates that reducing ship exhaust under the new rule will eliminate an estimated 3,600 premature deaths between 2009 and 2015 and lower cancer rick in coastal neighborhoods by more than 80 percent. In 2012, when the very-low-sulfur fuel requirement will be totally phased in, reductions of diesel particulate matter will be fifteen tons daily, which is 83 percent less than what existed before the rule was passed.

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