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Big Ports Get Big Solutions

image of Justine Hausheer
BLUE SKIES AHEAD New ship rules will save lives in California.

Los Angeles is notorious for its traffic jams and the resulting blanket of smog. But the fumes that hover over the city don't come from cars alone: much of the emissions emanates from the thousands of ships that dock at the area's ports. "The local air district estimates that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach produce more smog-forming pollution than all six million cars in the region," says Melissa Lin Perrella, an NRDC staff attorney.

Forty percent of the nation's imports enter through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, adjacent facilities that form the fifth-largest port complex in the world. The ships carrying these imports burn low-grade bunker fuel, and their exhaust is packed with smog-forming chemicals as well as fine particulate matter. "When you look at those kinds of ships, you can see the smoke pouring out of them," says Nicholas Stern, a California deputy attorney general. But ships aren't the only polluters at the ports. Trucks, forklifts, and other equipment unloading cargo burn diesel, contributing to the problem.

Port-related air pollution is a significant health hazard. Diesel emissions cause cancer and respiratory illnesses, such as aggravated asthma, and increase the risk of heart disease. An astonishing 80 percent of Californians are exposed to port-related air pollution, which can be carried inland by wind.

But Californians can look forward to clearer skies ahead. With the help of NRDC, in 2006 California adopted the Vessel Fuel Rules, which require ships to use cleaner fuel within 24 nautical miles of the state's coast. "Marine diesel contains much less sulfur" than bunker fuel, says Stern, "and when it's burned it emits much lower levels of particulates and sulfur oxides."

The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association immediately sued, initiating a six-year legal battle in which NRDC partnered with California to defend the right to limit hazardous pollutants. After a ruling favoring NRDC and the state, the PMSA exhausted its legal options. A district court finally dismissed the case in November 2012.

The Vessel Fuel Rules went into effect in 2009; the California Air Resources Board estimates that by 2015, approximately 3,500 premature deaths and nearly 100,000 asthma attacks will have been prevented.

After 2015, international regulations will require ships to switch to cleaner fuels within 200 miles of U.S. and Canadian coastlines, ensuring healthier air for millions of North Americans.

image of Justine Hausheer
Justine E. Hausheer is a science and environmental journalist with a penchant for paleontology, wildlife, and far-flung ecosystems. She has a degree from Princeton and a master's in science journalism from NYU.