The Greening of Ships

With the arrival of the 984-foot-long “green megaship” Hatsu Sigma at the Port of Los Angeles on December 6, the shipping industry sent a message to the California Air Resources Board and any other agency that might regulate air pollution at the port. It wasn’t “We hear you and we intend to comply” so much as “Look — we’re way ahead of you.” Two months after the board issued a report blaming oceangoing vessels for 20 percent of the particulate matter that blights the port, the Hatsu Sigma plugged into its berth boasting everything from electric-powered navigational equipment to an alternate fuel tank for holding cleaner-burning diesel, making it easy for the ship’s captain to switch over to less-toxic fuel as the vessel nears the coast.

“It was built with two holding tanks, just for that purpose,” says Wesley Brunson, executive vice president of the Evergreen Group, which commissioned Mitsubishi to build the Hatsu Sigma and nine other ships just as green. (According to an Evergreen press release, the Hatsu Sigma was named by Susan Bligh, wife of the chief executive of Britain’s Coast Guard Agency, Captain Stephen Bligh.) “We designed the ship recognizing that this was the direction that you’re seeing industry go, and having the foresight to be more environmentally responsible,” said Brunson. After all, “It’s not exactly a secret that certain ports are putting pressure on the shipping companies to be better tenants.”

Despite his sensitivity to a flurry of international laws regulating container-vessel emissions, Brunson, like every other representative of the shipping industry’s interests, doesn’t have much regard for the ARB’s December 8 order requiring ships bound for California to burn cleaner fuel 24 nautical miles from the coast.

“You’ll have to talk to the industry spokespeople about that,” he demurred. “I don’t even know if it’s legal.”

The new rule governing oceangoing vessels is one of two regulations the ARB adopted last week to reduce the public-health risk of what the state calls “goods movement” — the ship, rail and truck traffic associated with transporting goods to the port and throughout the state. The first rule requires the owners and operators of cargo-handling equipment such as cranes and forklifts to use only the cleanest-burning equipment on the market after January 1, 2007, when federal standards for clean diesel engines kick in; the ARB expects that rule to achieve a significant reduction in smog-forming nitrogen. But the ship-fuel rule will cut down on nitrogen and sulfur as well as deadly particulate matter. The ARB expects airborne particulates — a known carcinogen — to drop by 75 percent simply by policing incoming ships. According to both the ARB and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, air pollution related to goods movement causes 750 premature deaths in California every year, with diesel particulate as the prime culprit.

“For us diesel is a big deal,” said ARB spokesman Jerry Martin. “We’ve estimated that premature deaths would rise to 920 in 2020 if no efforts were made.”

But diesel also “makes the world go ’round,” said Martin, who stresses that the ARB isn’t asking shippers to abandon the diesel engine altogether, but merely to start feeding it something less toxic, such as more-refined marine distillate, as the ship comes close to shore. At the moment, nearly three-fourths of oceangoing container vessels burn a substance called “bunker fuel” on the water. “It’s what’s left after baby oil and hair grease and the lotion for your hands and gasoline and marine distillate are all taken out,” he said. Bunker fuel is heavy and cheap — safe and economical for a long trip across the sea. It’s also sickeningly dirty, and not just in particulate pollution. According to a study by the Danish Environment Protection Agency, emissions of acid-rain-forming sulfur dioxide from bunker-fuel ships in Danish waters amounted to double the emissions from all other sources combined.

Hardly anyone in the shipping industry denies the ARB’s data, nor do they object to what the state says the measure will cost shippers in higher fuel costs — about $20,000 annually for each of the 1,900 ships that make some 10,000 visits to the port every year. “We are taking the position that we understand the importance of these public-health concerns,” said T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a not-for-profit organization representing shippers. “The industry has and will take steps to address those concerns, such as cold-ironing” — plugging into electrical power at port. “But our concern is, quite frankly, whether it’s within the authority of the state to do this. If California, why not Washington, why not Louisiana, why not Oregon and Florida? We would prefer the federal government do it in a unified way.

“I know that a lot of people hold the Bush administration in low esteem on environmental issues,” Garrett added. “But I’m a tree-hugger from way back, and I can honestly say that this administration has held the line on diesel-pollution issues. They have a common-sense strategy that is feasible and won’t cripple the industry.”

The ARB insists that it does have the authority to clean up the air that might drift toward the state’s coast, and environmental groups back it up. “The issue is pretty simple,” said Erica Lepping of the Coalition for Clean Air. “A state has the ability under the federal Constitution to protect its citizens where their health is in major jeopardy. That’s our conclusion, it’s the conclusion of the [Natural Resources Defense Council], and it’s what ARB’s staff said.” Still, the “jurisdictional issue,” as Garrett calls it, will likely be decided in court.

“We’ll hold off until we see the final version of the legislation,” which is due out mid-January. “But a lot of organizations are looking at that component,” Garrett said.

In the meantime, he said, the industry itself will continue to pursue more environmentally friendly versions of seafaring vessels that not only run on cleaner fuel but hold wastewater onboard instead of dumping it into the ocean. Lepping gives “full credit” to both the Hong Kong–based Orient Overseas Container Line and the Danish shipping company Maersk: “They’re examples of industry folks who genuinely understand the health epidemic and believe that the technology does exist to stop it. They’re going above and beyond regulations.”

But she also believes that most shipping companies would do little without rules. A few years ago, the NRDC and the Coalition for Clean Air successfully sued to force China Shipping to include $50 million in environmental mitigation measures in its new terminal, motivating the industry to consider public health in its future decisions. And Garrett and Brunson both acknowledge the need to comply with increasingly tougher standards set by the Baltic States and the European Union — which has mandated low-sulfur diesel in ships — as well as other ports on both U.S. coasts. Designing the green fleet to which the Hatsu Sigma belongs, said Brunson, “is something we did because we had to. But we also know it’s the right thing to do,” he added quickly. “These are things the industry can take on itself.”

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