EPA proposes tougher port emissions standards

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The Federal Environmental Protection Agency is now moving to limit emissions along the coast and at the ports. The EPA is proposing tougher standards on big commercial ships, something local and state air quality officials have wanted for years. KPCC's Shirley Jahad talked about the announcement with South Coast Air Quality Management District spokesman Sam Atwood.

Sam Atwood: The EPA announcement is very significant. Ships are a very large source of air pollution, and there's really no way that we can get to clean air here in Southern California without dramatically slashing the pollution that comes from these oceangoing ships.

Shirley Jahad: Tell us what the program will do.

Atwood: It's going to reduce the amount of sulfur in this very dirty bunker fuel, and it's going also to reduce the nitrogen oxide emissions from vessels. The reductions are quite significant. The difficulty is they really will not come soon enough in order for Southern California to meet its clean air deadlines set by the U.S. EPA and outline in the federal Clean Air Act.

Jahad: Well what is the timetable?

Atwood: The fuel sulfur reductions will not start until 2015. We have to achieve the federal standard for fine particulates by 2015, and this standard is extremely dependent on reducing the fuel sulfur from oceangoing ships.

So on the one hand, this is a very significant announcement. EPA has literally dragged its feet for years and not regulating ships. This will do a lot to reduce those emissions, but it will not be in time to meet our federally mandated clean air deadline for fine particulate pollution.

Jahad: Local and state air quality officials have been pushing for the EPA to do this for some time, for many years during the Bush administration, right?

Atwood: That's right, and what the U.S. EPA insisted for years was that this was something that only could be controlled by an international organization, specifically the International Maritime Organization.

And that international group did take action last fall, and now all that's really needed is for EPA to apply to use these standards where pollution is the worst, including Southern California.

Jahad: We should say, we haven't seen huge objections from the shipping industry. In fact, some of the biggest shipping companies have already voluntarily agreed to go forward with these tougher standards for emissions. And we saw a quote from the EPA chief, Lisa Jackson, that says the difference in price for the fuel would amount to about three cents for each pair of sneakers brought in from those cargo ships.

Atwood: That's right. That is entirely consistent with estimates by the state air resources board. The added cost for the cleaner fuel is on the order of a few pennies for a pair of sneakers or similar consumer good.

Jahad: We know the ports of L.A. and Long Beach are among the biggest polluters in our region. What difference will these new standards make in terms of air quality and health quality?

Atwood: The new standards will make a significant difference in terms of improving our air quality. One of the pollutants that are admitted in large quantities by ships are sulfur oxides from the high sulfur bunker fuel that the ships burn. Now, the sulfur oxides in the atmosphere eventually turn into fine particular pollution, and this is one of our most hazardous air pollutants in Southern California.

All fine particulate pollution is responsible for an estimated 6,200 premature deaths each and every year in our region. So this reduction will see a great benefit in reducing our sulfur emissions, thus reducing our particulate pollution, and in turn reducing the premature deaths.