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Controlling Ship Pollution: As Easy as ECA?

Bill DiBenedetto headshotWords by Bill DiBenedetto
Leadership & Transparency

It was a long time coming. What some are hailing as landmark international regulations to reduce air pollution from ships in North American waters took effect this month.

It’s called an Emission Control Area, or ECA, and it is now in place a mere two years after the International Maritime Organization approved an application from the U.S. and Canada to create this “lower pollution zone.”

The ECA’s provisions are designed to prevent tons of harmful pollutants from entering the atmosphere from ships’ smokestacks. Many of these air pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and particulate matter, significantly impact the health of coastal communities and can travel hundreds of miles inland as well.

The EPA, which will oversee the program in the U.S., estimates that implementing the ECA will prevent between 12,000 and 31,000 premature deaths each year across the U.S. and save billions of dollars in health care costs by 2030.

Under the ECA, ships coming within 200 nautical miles of the U.S. and Canada are required to burn cleaner fuels. And those standards will become even more stringent by 2015 – bringing Canada and the U.S. in line with similar European restrictions.

Most large vessels, including cargo, container and cruise ships, burn bunker fuel, one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet. It is thousands of times dirtier than diesel truck fuel, according to the EPA. In addition to its air-polluting qualities, when bunker fuel is spilled it is almost impossible to clean up and is extremely destructive to oceans, coastal waters and the marine life living in those waters.

“Every dollar invested in cleaner ships avoids more than $30 in health costs, thanks to reduced asthma, cancer and heart disease,” said Rich Kassel, a consultant to the Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of the U.S. delegation that secured the ECA. “With economic and public health benefits like these, it’s easy to see why there has been broad bi-partisan support for creating the Emission Control Area.”

Well, perhaps not entirely broad or bi-partisan. The cruise industry is working hard to water down the ECA, lobbying Congress and the Obama administration to put in place measures that would allow it to bypass the ECA’s rules. The cruise industry claims that it will have to avoid North American waters if the ECA’s standards go into effect, citing increasing costs due to switching to less polluting fuel and replacing ship equipment to accommodate that fuel. The industry’s recent efforts include attempts to amend the ECA to exempt cruise ships from the cleaner fuel requirements in less populated areas like Alaska and Hawaii.

The EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard recently called the cruise industry’s proposals “unacceptable.” Friends of the Earth, NRDC and the Clean Air Task Force have urged the EPA and the Obama Administration to remain firm in their support of the ECA.

The ECA is also part of a growing trend to reduce shipping emissions. More than 50 ports across are already reducing their carbon emissions as part of the World Ports Climate Initiative.

The ECA is “something that everybody recognized would be undertaken and approved to improve air quality in North America," said Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, in an interview with Reuters. “It's not a surprise. It's an environmental regulation whose time has come.”

Well, except for the cruise industry’s 11th hour effort to scuttle what has been a five-year effort to get this done.

[Image: The North American ECA from the EPA Fact Sheet]

Bill DiBenedetto headshotBill DiBenedetto

Writer, editor, reader and generally good (okay mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by.

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