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Marine ports in the United States are major hubs of economic activity and major sources of pollution. Enormous ships with engines running on the dirtiest fuel available, thousands of diesel truck visits per day, mile-long trains with diesel locomotives hauling cargo, and other polluting equipment and activities at marine ports cause an array of environmental impacts that can seriously affect local communities and the environment. These impacts range from increased risk of illness, such as respiratory disease or cancer, to increases in regional smog, contamination of water, and the blight of local communities and public lands.

Most major ports in the United States are undergoing expansions to accommodate even greater cargo volumes. The growth of international trade has resulted in corresponding rapid growth in the amount of goods being shipped by sea. Despite the enormous growth within the marine shipping sector, most pollution prevention efforts at the local, state, and federal levels have focused on other pollution sources, while the environmental impacts of ports have grown.

Marine ports are now among the most poorly regulated sources of pollution in the United States. The result is that most U.S. ports are heavy polluters, releasing largely unchecked quantities of health-endangering air and water pollution, causing noise and light pollution that disrupts nearby communities, and harming marine habitats.

This report assesses efforts at the 10 largest U.S. ports to control pollution, and provides an overview of policy and practical pollution mitigation recommendations. A follow-up report, to be published in summer 2004, will offer detailed analysis of our technical recommendations for the benefit of port operators, regulatory agencies, and community-based environmental and health advocates.


The diesel engines at ports, which power ships, trucks, trains, and cargo-handling equipment, create vast amounts of air pollution affecting the health of workers and people living in nearby communities, as well as contributing significantly to regional air pollution. More than 30 human epidemiological studies have found that diesel exhaust increases cancer risks, and a 1999 California study found that diesel exhaust is responsible for 71 percent of the cancer risk from air pollution.1 More recent studies have linked diesel exhaust with asthma.2 Major air pollutants from diesel engines at ports that can affect human health include particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides (NOx), ozone, and sulfur oxides (SOx).

Primary Air Pollutants of Concern

Particulate matter pollution, or PM, ranges from coarse dust kicked up from dirt roads to tiny sooty particles formed when wood, gasoline or diesel is burned. At ports, construction and daily operations often create coarse PM, but it is the tiniest PM that causes the greatest health hazards. Much of this fine PM -- so small it is invisible to the eye -- comes from diesel engine exhaust. Less than 1.20 the diameter of a human hair, fine PM can travel deep into the lungs, landing in the delicate air sacs where oxygen exchange normally occurs.3 Numerous studies have found that these fine particles impair lung function, aggravate such respiratory illnesses as bronchitis and emphysema, and are associated with premature deaths.4 Dozens of studies link airborne fine-particle concentrations to increased hospital admissions for asthma attacks, chronic obstructive lung disease, pneumonia, and heart disease, including an increased risk of heart attacks.5 School absenteeism due to respiratory symptoms has also been linked to PM pollution.6

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are often toxic, and when they evaporate into the air they can react with other pollutants to form ground-level ozone, commonly referred to as smog. Common VOCs produced by diesel engines include benzene, 1,3-butadiene, formaldehyde, and toluene, each of which poses significant health risks, including cancer and birth defects.7

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are a family of chemicals, including nitrogen dioxide, nitric acid, nitrous oxide, nitrates, and other related compounds. They can cause a wide variety of health problems, including respiratory distress, and react with VOCs in the atmosphere to create ozone. A number of studies have found that NOx can have a toxic effect on the airways, leading to inflammation and asthmatic reactions.8 In fact, people with allergies or asthma have far stronger reactions to common allergens, such as pollen, when they are also exposed to NOx.9

Ozone, also known as smog, is a reactive gas produced when VOCs and NOx interact in sunlight and split apart oxygen molecules in the air. The layer of brown haze it produces is not just an eyesore, but also is a source of serious illnesses. Ozone is extremely irritating to the airways and the lungs, causing serious damage to the delicate cells lining the airways. It contributes to decreased lung function, increased respiratory symptoms, asthma, emergency room visits, and hospital admissions.10 Ozone can cause irreversible changes in lung structure, eventually leading to chronic respiratory illnesses, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis.11

Burning fuels that contain sulfur, such as diesel and especially marine diesel fuels that have a high sulfur content, produce sulfur oxides (SOx). Sulfur oxides include sulfur dioxide, PM, and a range of related chemical air pollutants. SOx react with water vapor in the air to create acids that irritate the airways, sometimes causing discomfort and coughing in healthy people, and often causing severe respiratory symptoms in asthmatics.12

In addition to the pollutants discussed above, there are other air pollutants that threaten public health that are not discussed in this report, including carbon monoxide (CO), formaldehyde, heavy metals, dioxins, and pesticides used to fumigate produce.

The Effect of Port-Related Air Pollution on Human Health

The health effects of pollution from ports may include asthma, other respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and premature death. In children, these pollutants have been linked with asthma and bronchitis, and high levels of the pollutants have been associated with increased school absenteeism and emergency room visits. In fact, numerous studies have shown that children living near busy diesel trucking routes are more likely to suffer from decreased lung function, wheezing, bronchitis, and allergies.13, 14, 15

Many major ports operate virtually next door to residential neighborhoods, schools, and playgrounds. Due to close proximity to port pollution, nearby communities face extraordinarily high health risks from port air pollutants. Many of these areas are low-income communities of color, raising environmental justice concerns.

In the Los Angeles area, oceangoing ships, harbor tugs, and commercial boats such as passenger ferries emit many times more smog-forming pollutants than all power plants in the Southern California region combined.16 And growth forecasts predicting trade to triple by 2020 in the Los Angeles region mean that smog-forming emissions and diesel particulate pollution could severely increase in an area already burdened by the worst air quality in the nation.

Figure 1
Average Contributions of Various Port-Related Sources to Total Nitrous Oxide (NOx) and Particulate Matter (PM10)Emissions from a Container Port

Marine Vessels Emissions Inventory (Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach), ARCADIS, Sept. 1999. Appendix G, pg. 6, 2000 forecast -- Marine Emissions Inventory and Table 4-2, page 4-2.
The New York, Northern New Jersey, Long Island Nonattainment Area Commercial Marine Vessel Emissions Inventory, Volume 1 -- Report, Prepared by Starcrest Consulting Group, LLC, for the Port Authority of NY & NJ, April 2003.
The Port of New York and New Jersey Emissions Inventory for Cargo Handling Equipment, Automarine Terminal Vehicles, and Associated Lcomotives, Prepared by Starcrest Consulting Group, LLC, for the Port Authority of NY & NJ, June 2003.
Port of Houston, Final Environmental Impact Statement, Bayport Ship Channel Container/Cruise Terminal, Appendix 3, May 2003.
Port of Oakland Final Environmental Impact Report, Berths 55-58 Project, SCH. NO. 97102076, Appendix C: Emissions Calculations, December 1998.

Nationally, the proportion of pollution from commercial ships is growing due to the lack of regulation. This category of pollution is expected to account for one-fifth of all diesel soot generated in 2020, making ships the second-largest source nationwide.17 Indeed, as Figure 1 shows, marine vessels contribute an average of 34 percent of NOx and 44 percent of PM emissions from ports alone.18 While new trucks are fairly clean compared to other diesel sources, the local trucks that serve container ports tend to be much older than the long-haul truck fleet, and therefore more polluting. Figure 1 also shows that diesel trucks are the second-largest source of port emissions today. Locomotives and cargo-handling equipment are also extremely polluting compared to on-road trucks due to their much more relaxed emission standards -- in some cases 15 times more polluting. While there is only a limited amount of cargo-handling equipment at ports compared to tens of thousands of trucks that can service a port in a single day, this pollution source on average contributes almost a quarter of the emissions of NOx and PM at ports. Locomotives are a relatively small contributor to overall port emissions; however, most of the large rail yards serving ports from Long Beach to Virginia are significant pollution sources outside of port property, and therefore not included in overall port emissions.

Although cars, power plants, and refineries are all well-known, large sources of pollution, Figure 2 demonstrates that the air pollution from ports rival or exceed these sources. This can be attributed to varying degrees of regulations. Pollution from cars, power plants, and refineries are somewhat controlled, whereas port pollution has continued to grow with almost no regulatory control. The Port of Los Angeles is the largest West Coast port, while the Port of New York & New Jersey is the largest East Coast port. The Port of Virginia represents other large ports such as Savannah, Houston, and Seattle. Figure 2 highlights emissions of NOx and PM because these pollutants are associated with very severe health impacts. Despite very conservative assumptions used to calculate port emissions, ports out-pollute some of the largest sources, begging the question: Should ports be regulated like other large sources of pollution?19

Figure 2
Nitrous Oxide (NOx) and Particulate Matter (PM10) Pollution from Ports Compared to Refineries, Power Plants, and Cars

Seaports of the Americas, American Association of Port Authorities Directory, p. 127, 2002; www.aapa-ports.org/industryinfo/statistics.htm.
U.S. EPA, National Emission Trends, Average Annual Emissions, All Criteria Pollutants, 1970-2001, August 13, 2003; www.epa.gov/ttn/chief/trends/index.html
Energy Information Administration, Petroleum Supply Annual 1982, Volume 1, DOE/EIA-0340 (82)/1 (June 1983, Washington, DC), pp. 97-103 and Petroleum Supply Annual 2000, Volume 1, DOE/EIA-0340 (2000)/1 (Washington, DC, June 2001), Table 40; and company press releases; as posted at www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/finance/mergers/refcap_tab2.html.
Energy Information Administration, Form EIA-861, "Annual Electric Utility Report." As posted at www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/public/t01p01.txt
US Dept of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, 2000 Highway Statistics, State Motor-Vehicle Registrations, www.fhwa.dot.gov/ohim/hs00/xls/mv1.xls


Port operations, including waste from ships that is either dumped directly or leached into water, can cause significant damage to water quality -- and subsequently to marine life and ecosystems and human health. These effects may include bacterial and viral contamination of commercial fish and shellfish, depletion of oxygen in water, and bioaccumulation of certain toxins in fish.20

Primary Threats to Water Quality

Bilge is water collected at the bottom of the hull of a ship-water that is often contaminated with oil leaking from machinery. Bilge water must be emptied periodically to maintain a ship's stability and to prevent the accumulation of hazardous vapors. This oily wastewater, combined with other ship wastes such as sewage and wastewater from other onboard uses, is a serious threat to marine life.21

Antifouling additives are often added to the paint used on ships to prevent the growth of barnacles and other marine organisms on ship surfaces. Some of these additives contain tributyltin (TBT), a toxic chemical that can leach into water.22 While toxic antifouling additives are slowly being phased out of use, these toxic pollutants persist in the marine environment. Alternatives to TBT are in ample supply.

Stormwater runoff is precipitation that travels across paved surfaces. It can accumulate deposits of air pollution, automotive fluids, sediments, nutrients, pesticides, metals, and other pollutants. In fact, urban stormwater runoff from all sources, including marine ports, is the largest source of impairment in U.S. coastal waters and the second-largest source of water pollution in U.S. estuaries.23 Virtually all of the land at a port terminal is paved, and therefore impervious to water.

When water bodies are overloaded with nitrogen, algae and plankton can rapidly increase in numbers, forming "blooms" which are sometimes called red or brown tides. This process, called eutrophication, has been identified by the National Research Council as the most serious pollution problem facing estuaries in the United States.24 As major sources of NOx, ports are major contributors to eutrophication.

In the year 2000, 8,354 oil spills were reported in U.S. waters, accounting for more than 1.4 million gallons of spilled oil. The majority of these spills occurred in internal and headlands waters, including the harbors and waterways upon which ports rely.25 A large share of oil contamination is the result of "chronic" pollution from such sources as port runoff, unloading and loading of oil tankers, and the removal of bilge water -- resulting in up to three times as much oil contamination as tanker accidents.26 However, large, "catastrophic" spills also have a significant impact.

Dredging is a routine activity of ports to remove sediment that builds up in ship channels from erosion and silt deposition. Dredging also creates new channels and deepens existing ones. Each year, more than 300 million cubic yards of sediment in waterways and harbors are dredged to allow ships to pass through.1 About five to 10 percent of dredged sediment is contaminated with toxic chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury and other heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and pesticides -- all of which can cause water contamination and complicate sediment disposal.28 Dredging may also increase water turbidity (cloudiness), harm habitat, and disturb or kill threatened and endangered species. It may also risk stirring up and releasing buried contaminants.

These various forms of water pollution cause a broad range of environmental problems, including loss of critical wetlands areas, water sedimentation that harms important habitat (seagrass beds, in particular), collisions involving boats and marine mammals, and marine life exposure to debris, including plastic bags, netting, and plastic pellets.


The highly industrialized operations at ports are often in close proximity to residential areas, creating nuisances and hazards for nearby communities. Ports have several available options to avoid developing new terminals near residential areas. They can develop property previously used in an industrial capacity, or they can increase efficiency of land use at existing terminals. The land use patterns at U.S. ports suggest much room for efficiency improvements. Of the 10 largest U.S. ports, even those that are most efficient in terms of land use, Long Beach and Houston, are four times less efficient than the Port of Singapore, a model of land-use efficiency.

One positive approach to land use is for ports to focus their expansion efforts on brownfields, or tracts of land that have been developed for industrial purposes, polluted, and then abandoned.29 The potential costs of cleaning up brownfield sites makes them less appealing to companies looking to locate or expand, and as a result, new industrial operations are often sited on pristine, undeveloped "greenfield" land. This often leads to a loss of habitat and wildlife, increases in air and water pollution, and urbanization of open space valuable for its recreational and aesthetic qualities.30 However, developing brownfields offers many advantages to business, communities, and the environment. Businesses benefit from locating on sites near existing transportation infrastructure, and with a utility infrastructure already in place, while cleaning up contamination that poses a danger to both the community and the environment.31


Ports can be very bad neighbors. In addition to the air and water pollution problems they create, they can be loud, ugly, brightly lit at night, and a cause of traffic jams. These problems can go beyond simple annoyance to cause serious negative health effects. For example, noise pollution has been linked to hearing impairment, hypertension (high blood pressure), sleep deprivation, reduced performance, and even aggressive behavior.32 At ports bordering residential neighborhoods, bright lights at night and the flashing lights of straddle carriers and forklifts can affect nearby residents, disrupting biological rhythms and causing stress and annoyance.33, 34

In addition to the negative effects experienced by people, noise from ship engines may disturb marine mammal hearing and behavior patterns, as well as bird feeding and nesting sites.35, 36 Similarly, artificial lights at ports, sometimes burning 24 hours a day, can have negative effects on wildlife, including disorientation, confusion of biological rhythms that are adapted to a day/night alternation, and a general degradation of habitat quality. This pollution can cause high mortality in animal populations, particularly to birds attracted to brightly lit buildings and towers and that circle these structures until they die of exhaustion or run head on into them.37, 38

Ports can also be bad neighbors by ignoring residents of the communities living next door, or making little or no effort to solicit community input into port operational decisions that will directly affect the life of the community and its residents. Many U.S. ports have developed decidedly hostile relations with their neighbors, not just because of the pollution the ports produce, but because they have consistently ignored residents of nearby communities, refusing sometimes even to share critical information about possible effects of port operations.


1. California Air Resources Board. Diesel Risk Reduction Plan, Oct 2000.

2. Pandya, R.J., Solomon, G.M., Kinner, A., Balmes, J.R.: "Diesel exhaust and asthma: Hypotheses and molecular mechanisms of action." Environ Health Perspect 110 (Suppl 1): 103-112, 2002.

3. Bagley, S.T.: "Characterization of Fuel and Aftertreatment Device Effects of Diesel Emissions." Research Report Number 76. Topsfield, Massachussetts, Health Effects Institute, 1996.

4. Pope, C.A.: "Particulate air pollution as a predictor of mortality in a prospective study of U.S. adults." Am. J. Respir. Crit. Care Med 151: 669-674, 1995.

5. Peters, A., Dockery, D.W., Muller, J.E., Mittleman, M.A.: "Increased particulate air pollution and the triggering of myocardial infarction." Circulation 103: 2810-2815, 2001.

6. Park, H., Lee, B., Ha, E.H., Lee, J.T., Kim, H., Hong, Y.C.: "Association of air pollution with school absenteeism due to illness." Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 156 (12): 1235-9, 2002.

7. California Air Resources Board: "Draft Diesel Exposure Assessment." A-7, 1998.

8. Davies, R.J., Rusznak, C., Calderon, M.A., Wang, J.H., Abdelaziz, M.M., Devalia, J.L.: "Allergen-irritant interaction and the role of corticosteroids." Allergy 52 (Suppl 38):59-65, 1997.

9. Davies, R.J., Rusznak, C., Devalia, J.L.: "Why is allergy increasing? -- environmental factors." Clinical Experiment Allergy 28 (Suppl 6):8-14, 1998.

10. U.S. EPA(1996). Air Quality Criteria for Ozone and Related Photochemical Oxidants, EPA/600/P-93/004aF. Docket No. A-99-06. Document Nos. II-A-15 to 17. www.epa.gov/ttn/naaqs/standards/ozone/s.03.index.html.

11. U.S. EPA(1996). "Air Quality Criteria for Ozone and Related Photochemical Oxidants," EPA/600/P-93/004aF. Docket No. A-99-06. Document Nos. II-A-15 to 17. (See page 7-171); Hodgkin, J.E., Abbey, D.E., Euler, G.L., Magie, A.R. "COPD prevalence in nonsmokers in high and low photochemical air pollution areas." Chest 86:830-838, 1984; Abbey DE, Petersen F, Mills PK, Beeson WL. Long-term ambient concentrations of total suspended particulates, ozone, and sulfur dioxide and respiratory symptoms in a nonsmoking population. Arch Environ Health 48: 33-46, 1993.

12. Nicolai, T.: "Environmental air pollution and lung disease in children." Monaldi Arch Chest Dis 54:475-478, 1999.

13. Brunekreef, B., Janssen, N.A., de Hartog, J., Haressema, H., Knape, M., van Vliet, P.: "Air pollution from truck traffic and lung function in children living near motorways." Epidemiology 8: 298-303, 1997.

14. Ciccone, G., Fostastiere, F., Agabati, N., Bigger,i A., Bisanti, L., Chellini, E.: "Road traffic and adverse respiratory effects in children." SIDRIA Collaborative Group. Occup Environ Med 55: 771-778, 1998.

15. Duhme, H., Weiland, S.K., Keil, U., Kraemer, B., Schmid, M., Stender, M., Chambless, L.: "The association between self-reported symptoms of asthma and allergic rhinitis and self-reported traffic density on street of residence in adolescents." Epidemiology 7: 578-82, 1996.

16. Mitchell, Diane, "Health Effects of Shipping Related Air Pollutants," California Air Resources Board. Presentation to EPARegion 9 Conference on Marine Vessels and Air Quality, Feb 1, 2001.

17. EPANon-road Diesel Rule, Draft Regulatory Impact Analysis (EPA420-R-03-008, April 2003), Chapter 3: Emission Inventories (Section 3.2), www.epa.gov/nonroad/#links.

18. To date, regulatory agencies have not reported emission inventories of all activities occurring at a single port combined. The California Air Resources Board is currently working with the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to create an inventory. The Port of Houston may have compiled its own inventory, and similar work was done for the Port of New York and New Jersey, although the New York & New Jersey inventory was not comprehensive. Figure 1 was compiled using information reported in several Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) from the ports of Houston and Oakland, an inventory of marine vessels in San Pedro Bay, CA, and the Port of New York & New Jersey inventory. The information used is likely to be an extremely conservative estimate of port emissions. For example, emissions from heavyduty trucks and cargo-handling equipment are likely to be underestimated because they rely on the very optimistic assumptions about the age of equipment and vehicles used to calculate emissions in EIS's. Additionally, it should be noted that the contributions from various emission sources vary widely at different ports, so the numbers presented here are general indicators of the magnitude of emissions from various sources.

19. NOx and PM emissions for refineries, power plants, and cars were taken from total U.S. emissions in EPA's National Emission Trends, 2000. The national emission totals were then divided by the total number of refineries, power plants, and registered passenger vehicles in 2000. Emissions per avg. U.S. passenger car were then multiplied by 500,000 to represent that amount of cars. NOx and PM emissions for the ports of Virginia, New York & New Jersey, and Los Angeles were based on the same calculations.

20. Cruise Control, a Report on How Cruise Ships Affect the Marine Environment, The Ocean Conservancy, May 2002.

21. The Ocean Conservancy (2002).

22. Extension Toxicology Network of Cornell University (1993). Pesticide information profile: tributyltin. Available online at: pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/extoxnet/pyrethrins-ziram/tributyltin-ext.html.

23. U.S. EPA, National Water Quality Inventory: 2000 Report, at 39, 29.

24. EPA, Final Rule for Cleaner Large Industrial Spark-Ignition Engines, Recreational Marine Diesel Engines, and Recreational Vehicles, Final Regulatory Support Document (EPA420-R-02-022), Chapter 1: Health and Welfare Concerns (, www.epa.gov/otaq/regs/nonroad/2002/cleanrec-final.htm.

25. U.S. Coast Guard (2001). Oil spills in U.S. waters 2000. Available online at: www.uscg.mil/hq/g-m/nmc/response/stats/chpt2000.pdf. Last visited on Jun 23, 2003.

26. American Association of Port Authorities (2001). Green Ports: Environmental Management and Technology at U.S. Ports. Available online at: www.aapa-ports.org/govrelations/greenports.htm. Last visited on Jun 25, 2003. National Research Council of the National Academies, Oil in the sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects, 2003, Committee on Oil in the Sea: Inputs, Fates, and Effects, Ocean Studies Board and Marine Board, Divisions of Earth and Life Studies and Transportation Research Board, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.; www.nap.edu.

27. U.S. Public Port Facts, Position Paper of the American Association of Port Authorities, www.aapaports.org/govrelations/facts.pdf.

28. American Association of Port Authorities (2001).

29. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2003). Brownfields Cleanup and Redevelopment: Brownfields Glossary of Terms. Available online at: www.epa.gov/brownfields/glossary.htm#brow. Last visited Jun 23, 2003.

30. Natural Resources Defense Council (1999). Paving Paradise: Sprawl and the Environment. Available online at: www.nrdc.org/cities/smartgrowth/rpave.asp. Last visited Jun 16, 2003.

31. Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (2003). About Brownfields. Available online at: www.deq.state.va.us/brownfieldweb/about.html. Last visited Jun 17, 2003.

32. World Health Organization (1999). Guidelines for Community Noise. ed. by Berglund, B., Lindvall, T., Schwela, D.H.. World Health Organization: 159 pp. Available online at: www.who.int/peh/noise/guidelines2.html. Last visited Jun 18, 2003.

33. International Navigation Association (1999).

34. Health Council of the Netherlands (2000). Impact of outdoor lighting on man and nature. The Hague: Health Council of the Netherlands, 2000; publication no. 2000/25E. Available online at: www.gr.nl/pdf.php?ID=321. Last visited Jun 25, 2003.

35. The Humane Society of the United States (2003). Noise Pollution and Acoustic Harassment. Available online at: www.hsus.org/ace/12609. Last visited on Jun 30, 2003.

36. International Navigation Association (1999). Environmental management framework for ports and related industries, Report of Working Group 4, 38 pp.

37. International Dark-Sky Association (2002). Effects of Artificial Light at Night on Wildlife. Available online at: www.darksky.org/infoshts/pdf/is187.pdf. Last visited Jun 18, 2003.

38. Guynup, S., "Light pollution taking toll on wildlife, Eco-groups say." National Geographic Today, Apr 17, 2003. Available online at: news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/04/0417_030417_tvlightpollution.html. Last visited June 20, 2003.

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last revised 2/28/2006

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