EPA Gives Port Pollution Failing Grade

The EPA's Office of the Inspector General (IG) recently issued an 80-page report calling out EPA for its failure to protect Americans from pollution from oceangoing ships.  Margot Roosevelt of the L.A. Times has a description of the report here.

As the IG report points out, EPA has the legal authority to regulate emissions from foreign-flagged ships calling at U.S. ports, but has declined to use that authority even though the threat to public health from ship emissions is well-known.  For example, a July 2008 NOAA study "found that emissions from shipping have a significant impact on air quality and health on both local and regional scales.  Extensive measurements of the emissions of light absorbing carbon aerosol, or soot, from commercial shipping showed increased concentrations of this aerosol at U.S. ports on the East Coast, West Coast, and Gulf Coast.  The study also suggested that large oceangoing vessels may emit up to twice as much aerosol as previously estimated."  Ship emissions also contribute to the formation of ground level ozone, acid rain, and crop damage.

EPA itself recently conducted an initial screening level analysis on the size of the U.S. population living near 47 marine ports and 37 rail yards.  The results indicate that at least 13 million people, including a disproportionate number of low-income households -- many African-American and Hispanic families -- live in the vicinity of port-related facilities and are exposed to toxic levels ambient diesel particulate matter. A 2007 study referred to by the IG estimated that PM2.5 emissions (diesel particulates) from ships are responsible for approximately 8,800 deaths in North America annually.

The IG report also tell us: "In addition to public health impacts, serious public welfare and environmental impacts are associated with mobile source emissions at ports. Pollutants such as NOx, SOx, and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) can impair visibility in many parts of the United States. These pollutants contribute to structural damage to bridges and other structures by corrosion or erosion, and damage the exteriors of buildings, monuments, and other culturally important articles. Finally, NOx and SOx emissions from diesel engines contribute to increased acidity and higher amounts of dissolved chemical nutrients (especially nitrogen and sulfur) in water bodies. For example, airborne NOx from diesel and other sources contributes about 32 percent of the excess nitrogen load to the Chesapeake Bay, North America's largest and most biologically diverse estuary, home to more than 16 million people and 3,600 species of plants, fish, and animals."

None of this is a surprise to those of us who have working to clean up the L.A. area ports.  The EPA Inspector General report does a good job of showing that the port pollution problem that Southern California has struggled with for years is really a nationwide problem - a problem that the EPA has been ineffective in dealing with. 

There are tools available now to help clean up the problem, such as shore-side power (plugging into electrical power while at dock) and low-sulfur, less polluting marine fuel.  The California Air Resources Board has enacted regulations to require these measures in California and EPA could do the same nationwide.  NRDC hopes that the Obama Administration EPA will take the IG report to heart to protect the health of all Americans.

About the Authors

David Pettit

Senior Attorney, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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