EPA move to cut Great Lakes ship emissions stirs the waters

Adolph Ojard, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, talks about a proposed EPA mandate that would compel Great Lakes' vessels to burn cleaner fuel and upgrade their engines, and the impact it would have on the Duluth-Superior port.
By Kari Lydersen and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

DULUTH, MINN. -- A horn blasts, seagulls screech and tourists clap as the longest ship in the Great Lakes, the 308-meter Paul R. Tregurtha, glides through Duluth's canal and heads into Lake Superior, loaded down with coal bound for Midwestern power plants.

Piles of crushed limestone, salt, iron ore and coal line the shores of the Great Lakes' busiest port, destined to forge steel, de-ice roads and build skyscrapers throughout the heartland. The towering grain elevators along the harbor's shores are stuffed with wheat and soy waiting for the trip out the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean, then on to Europe, North Africa or South America.

Underlying this show of commercial strength is a maritime industry many see as fragile, threatened not only by a weak economy but also by broader environmental initiatives. The emissions from these ships -- the only mode of transportation not under new federal air pollution regulations -- have been linked to increased levels of heart and lung disease.

Now, an Environmental Protection Agency proposal that would compel the vessels to burn cleaner fuel and upgrade their engines has sparked a furious behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign that has come to a head this week, pitting congressional Democrats against a Democratic administration as lawmakers allied with Midwestern and Alaskan shippers pressure the EPA to back down and protect jobs.

High stakes

The outcome of the battle -- which has delayed consideration of the EPA's budget -- has implications for a region battered by unemployment and one of the Obama's administration's key environmental strategies.

Large vessels rank second only to power plants as to the health risk their air pollution poses, and the EPA estimates the proposal will produce more health benefits than those it has applied to off-road vehicles, diesel trucks and other sources. Without further regulation by 2030, the agency projects that smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions from the ships will more than double, to 2.1 million tons a year.

Environmental and health groups say the new standards, proposed in July and set to be finalized by Dec. 17, would prevent up to 33,000 premature deaths a year from problems such as heart disease, respiratory illness and cancer. Although coastal areas would reap the biggest clean air benefits, air quality would also improve for states hundreds of miles inland, including Nevada, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, and parks such as the Grand Canyon and the Great Smoky Mountains.

The proposal would limit air emissions from ships in the United States' exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from its coasts. This includes the 133 American and Canadian "Lakers" that spend their whole lives in the Great Lakes or St. Lawrence Seaway and the smaller "Salties" that go between foreign and Great Lakes ports.

The agency wants to require vessels to switch by 2015 from viscous bunker fuel, which contains about 30,000 parts per million sulfur, to fuel that contains no more than 1,000 parts per million. Trucks are required to use fuel with no more than 15 ppm sulfur, and by 2015 locomotives, bulldozers and barges will have similar limits.

Great Lakes shipping industry officials say the cost of the new fuel and the engine overhauls needed to burn it would undermine their competitive edge and shift commodity transport to rail and truck.

Lake Carriers' Association President James H.I. Weakley said the rule would cost U.S. and Canadian ships an extra $210 million a year for fuel. Out of a U.S. fleet of 65, he predicted that 13 steamships with 429 mariners would be scrapped and that 13 ships with old diesel engines might face premature retirement.

Great Lakes shippers said the process is incomplete. The EPA analysis that the policy's health benefits would outweigh its compliance costs by at least 30 to 1, they said, fails to grasp the impact the rule would have on a region experiencing double-digit unemployment -- a problem that could spread to iron ore miners, farmers, salt miners and others if exports decrease. Iron ore shipments from Great Lakes ports are nearly half of last year's, with coal shipments falling by a third.

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