The balcony of my downtown Fort Lauderdale apartment offers a lovely view of the New River as it meanders toward the Intracoastal Waterway and Port Everglades, where the big cruise ships and freighters dock.
The price my neighbors and I pay for that view is an ever-present layer of black soot that coats our balcony floors. It is a pain to mop up, and it cannot be hosed off because our high-rise discourages splashing filthy water onto passersby below.
Some of the soot comes from the water taxis, service barges and yachts that cruise up the New River right below us. Sea breezes probably carry more in our direction from the port a couple of miles away. Nearly all the boats and ships we enjoy watching are powered by old-fashioned diesel fuel and lack the pollution control equipment found on modern land-based vehicles.
This is beginning to change. The small craft that ply the New River, and other U.S.-flagged vessels operating in American waters, are transitioning to the ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel that has been required for American automobiles since 2007. By 2014, marine engines will be required to use automotive-quality emissions control systems that would have been fouled by the higher sulfur content of older fuels. That should put a dent in my soot problem.
The big ocean-going vessels at Port Everglades are another matter. Virtually all the cruise ships and the vast majority of freighters that dock at U.S. ports fly flags of other countries. They are governed under much looser rules set by the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations body. Many burn an exceptionally cheap and dirty grade of oil known as bunker fuel, which is so gooey that it must be heated before it is pumped into the ships’ huge engines, and is so dirty that the sulfur content can exceed 3 percent of the fuel, or 30,000 parts per million.
But the IMO is also taking steps to clean things up. Last month the agency took an important step toward curbing coastal pollution by requiring the big ships to use low-sulfur fuel when traveling within 200 nautical miles of the U.S. or Canadian coasts. The rules will be phased into effect between 2012 and 2016. Starting in 2012, ships will be required to use fuel with sulfur content lower than 10,000 parts per million, or 1 percent. By 2015, ships will need to burn fuel with a sulfur content of no more than 1,000 parts per million.
This is a considerable improvement, though it is still a lot dirtier than the “low sulfur” standard of 500 parts per million that was in effect for U.S. cars and trucks prior to 2007, let alone the 15-ppm “ultra low sulfur” standard that is now in place for highway vehicles and will be in force for American marine vessels beginning in 2014.
Dirty diesel causes a lot more problems than grimy balconies. In 2007 the first global report on human health problems caused by shipping-related pollution estimated that between 19,000 and 64,000 people died in 2002 from cardiopulmonary problems and lung cancer caused by shipping emissions. The wide range was a result of different assumptions used in the calculations.
At the time, researchers predicted that the problem would only worsen if tighter regulations were not put in place. James Corbett, the study’s lead author, said, “With more than half of the world’s population living in coastal regions and freight growth outpacing other sectors, shipping emissions will need to meet stricter control targets.”
The EPA has estimated that the new regulations will provide relief to 5 million people who suffer from health problems caused by poor air quality. “This is a change that will benefit millions of people and set in motion new innovations for the shipping industry,” EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a statement lauding the new IMO standards.
The cruise ship industry initially opposed the plan, but did not object to the final standards in the vote at the IMO headquarters in London last month. Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, said, “It will mean higher operating costs, but we believe the trade-off is to successfully address the problems U.S. port communities have faced.”
Maybe in a few years I will be able to step onto my balcony for a bit of fresh air and actually get it.