Environment & Science

New rules aim to reduce sulfur pollution from ships by 40 tons each day

An exhibit at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach shows 11 percent of global shipping traffic that occurred from October 1, 2004 - October 1, 2005. Higher trafficked routes are shown in red.
An exhibit at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach shows 11 percent of global shipping traffic that occurred from October 1, 2004 - October 1, 2005. Higher trafficked routes are shown in red.
Jed Kim

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Officials with the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles said on Wednesday they were expecting  significant reductions in sulfur pollution spewed by cargo ships given restrictions that took effect this month. 

New international regulations mandate that ships switch to low-sulfur fuels when entering waters 200 miles from the U.S. coast.

“We’ve had low sulfur fuel requirements in automobiles for a long time, but now it is gradually being imposed on the ships, all the way out to 200 miles. The result has been a very substantial improvement in air quality,” said Chris Cannon, director of environmental management for the Port of Los Angeles.

The amount of sulfur in the lower-content fuel has around 1000 parts per million of the chemical, according to an official with the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The sulfur content of regular marine fuels is around 27,000 parts per million.

“Sulfur emissions from marine vessels are the highest contributor to sulfur dioxide emissions in the region,“ said Henry Hogo, assistant deputy executive officer of the mobile source division at AQMD.

Hogo said that industry and motor vehicles are also sources of sulfur oxide pollution but at far lesser amounts. Diesel fuel for trucks currently has sulfur levels at 15 parts per million.

Sulfur is a precursor to secondary fine particulate matter, which has been linked to a host of health problems.

“Sulfur emissions are toxic, they contribute to asthma, and they’re also contributors to ozone,” Cannon said.

The regulations are part of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which was adopted by the International Maritime Organization in 1973. The new regulation will be enforced in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency, under the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships.

The EPA released a policy document last week that determines civil penalties for ships that violate the new regulation. Fines may be levied up to $25,000 per violation, per day. However, those fines do not include additional infractions against MARPOL that ship operators may incur.

In advance of the new regulation, California had mandated that a similar restriction be set in place for state waters, 24 miles offshore. The AQMD estimates that under the new 200 mile guidelines, sulfur oxide emissions in the South Coast Air Basin will be reduced by approximately 41.5 tons per day. It will also reduce PM2.5 emissions by 3.7 tons per day.