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Lawmakers urge White House to move quickly to limit harmful ship pollution

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RITA BEAMISH
February 14, 2008

The Bush administration is making headway with other nations in setting new global standards to reduce dangerous emissions from giant diesel-burning ships that pollute U.S. ports, a senior environmental official said Thursday. An emergency room physician described a “diesel death zone” around major U.S. seaports, with higher cancer rates and other health risks.


“International standards for pollution from ship engines, written mostly by the shipping industry, are so lax as to be meaningless,” Dr. John Miller, an emergency room physician from San Pedro, Calif., told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.


That panel is considering legislation to sharply curb emissions from the largest cargo carriers, most of which are foreign flagged.


Bryan Wood-Thomas, an associate director at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the Bush administration favors pursuing a new global standard instead of imposing U.S.-specific rules. The agency is making progress on strong U.S. proposals to reduce pollutants, he said.


Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said EPA should act quickly, regardless of the international action.


“I just don’t get it,” Boxer said. “Our people are suffering because foreign flags are coming in and they’re filthy and they’re polluting. And we are sitting back saying we can’t do anything until we get this international agreement.”


She called on a 12-year-old sixth grader from San Bernardino, Calif., who told the hearing of his battles with asthma.


“If these particles that I breathe every day are safe, then why do I depend on daily medication and the fast relief of my inhaler to do something that everyone has the right to do: Breathe,” Jonah Ramirez asked the panel.


Sen. David Vitter, R-La., questioned whether all states should have to face possible economic consequences from new regulation that is most critical where air quality is worst.


“There’s a problem in Southern California,” he said. “Don’t drag us down to fix it.” He suggested that Los Angeles ports limit their ship traffic.


The administration is under pressure from Congress and local environmental regulators to enact its own regulations instead of waiting for the U.N. International Maritime Organization to reach an anti-pollution agreement. The EPA plans to issue its rules in 2009, after expected decisions by the 167-nation group. The global group met last week and holds its next discussions in April.


“Marine vessels are the largest uncontrolled source of air pollution in many areas of the country, causing at least 2,000 to 5,000 premature deaths every year,” said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a Southern California air-regulatory board.


Wallerstein said Congress should act because there is no assurance the international rules will comply with measures needed to keep ship pollution from eroding gains the United States has already made regulating other diesel sources.


Representatives from Louisiana’s ports and offshore oil and gas shipping urged Congress to support U.S. global proposals rather than imposing unilateral rules that could put them at a competitive disadvantage.


Ports in Canada and Mexico could attract more ships if Congress imposes tougher air-quality restrictions than other countries, said Joe Accardo, executive director of the Ports Association of Louisiana.


“We don’t want to see one person die because of pollutants coming from any of our ships,” Accardo said.


Boxer countered that global talks have been going on since 2003.


“How long does Jonah have to wait?” she asked.


Unilateral action also could mean fewer vessels choose to meet that standard. The result: “Demand for vessels outstrips the supply of qualified vessels and (shipping) rates skyrocket,” said Ken Wells, president of the Offshore Marine Service Association. He said that would hurt industries like the Mississippi River grain export business.


Some shipping companies have already announced voluntary conversion to cleaner fuel.


The nitrogen oxide, soot and sulfur oxide emissions from the large ships are linked to burgeoning asthma, respiratory and cardiac problems.


Even areas without commercial ports can be affected. Within 12 years, two-thirds of the nitrogen oxide exposed to residents in Santa Barbara County, Calif., will come from ships traveling its coast south to Los Angeles and Long Beach.


The large ocean carriers “will soon be the last bastion of dirty diesel engines,” now that EPA is imposing pollution-reduction rules for locomotives and smaller ships like tugboats, said Richard Kassel, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The large ships burn cheap, asphalt-like diesel that is 1,800 times dirtier than the U.S. norm for trucks.



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