With eye southward Pacific Northwest ports begin air cleanup

Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle) – April 21, 2008
http://seattle.bizjournals.com/seattle/stories/2008/04/21/focus11.html

Friday, April 18, 2008
Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle) – by Steve Wilhelm Staff Writer

Looking over their shoulders at the environmental pressures on port operators in Southern California, the ports of Seattle and Tacoma have this year embarked on an ambitious, but voluntary, program to curb their own air emissions.

Approved by the two port commissions in January, with the Port of Vancouver, British Columbia, expected to follow, the plan is called the Northwest Ports Clean Air Strategy.

It doesn’t hurt that terminal and ship operators are looking over their shoulders also, at stiffer regulations being put together by the Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations-based International Maritime Organization.

The good news for Puget Sound ports is that they don’t yet suffer from the air quality problems that have snarled the California ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles in lawsuits and stymied their expansion plans.

Two key differences between the regions are:

The Southern California urban area is chronically in “non-attainment” for federal air quality standards, which puts enormous legal and regulatory pressure on emitters of diesel particulates and sulfur dioxide. In the Puget Sound area, only Tacoma is in non-attainment, only intermittently, and chiefly due to wood smoke from home heaters.
Thousands of ocean containers leaving the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles must be hauled 20 miles by truck, many of them soot-belching older models, right by residential neighborhoods on the way to rail yards in the center of Los Angeles. By comparison, most containers leaving Puget Sound ports are either loaded aboard trains at the docks, or after a short trip through industrial areas, to rail yards close to dockside.
Fred Felleman, a consultant for Friends of the Earth, points out that there’s a good deal of self-interest tied up in the port’s efforts. Diesel soot belched by ships and trucks at the ports has gotten more attention as emissions from cars and factories have gradually diminished.

Felleman warned that Puget Sound ports’ growth plans could run afoul of the air-quality-related limits that have thwarted the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

For the balance of this year, Seattle and Tacoma port officials are focused on developing incentives to encourage companies operating at the ports to fulfill the largely voluntary goals of the Clean Air Strategy. Port of Seattle Seaport Environmental Manager Stephanie Jones-Stebbins calls it “putting meat on the bones.”

“We have a lot more latitude (than Southern California ports) in how we can approach it, and we can do with what makes more sense,” she said. “We set the goal; oceangoing vessels, trucks, cargo handling equipment, will meet the standard in the way that suits best.”

This means that while the strategy has, for instance, set a 2010 goal for ships to reduce diesel particulates to the level that would be achieved by switching to certain low-sulfur fuel, the companies don’t have to take this approach. Vessel owners could, for instance, switch to shore power at dock or use some other approach.

Diesel particulates get the most attention because this is a type of pollution that can cause cancer, and it does so close to the point where it is emitted; the particles quickly settle to the ground and don’t affect people farther away. While the good news is that this means ports can focus on situations where particles and people are in proximity, the same quality also makes any failure to act more easily pinpointed.

A case in point is the recent Port of Seattle decision, under pressure from community activists, to convert a little-used section of Harbor Island to a truck parking lot, in an effort to attract owner-operators away from the Georgetown streets where those operators have been parking their rigs. While the new parking spaces won’t do anything to lower those trucks’ diesel emissions, it will get those emissions farther from Georgetown’s residential areas.

Cargo ships calling at the ports also don’t have to meet the goal at all, because local port operators have no legal jurisdiction over ships owned and flagged overseas. Ports along the West Coast are encouraging ships to meet air emissions goals in a variety of ways, with Southern California ports requiring higher fuel standards as a condition of long-term leases, while the Port of Vancouver, B.C., is adjusting berthing fees to give financial rewards for cleaner-burning ships.

Other goals set by the Northwest Ports Clean Air Strategy for 2010 include reaching:

A portwide equivalent of lower-emitting “Tier 2 and Tier 3” engines for cargo handling equipment.
The particle-emitting equivalent of 1994 truck engines, or better. Some trucks in use don’t meet that standard.
The ports have set even stiffer goals for 2015, including cleaner fuel at dockside, cleaner engines for cargo handling equipment, and 2007 truck-engine levels for 80 percent of trucks.

Port of Seattle and Tacoma officials are approaching the entire question carefully, because while a few cargo-carrying companies operating at the ports are essentially tied there — such as terminal operators and regional ocean carriers like Totem Ocean Trailer Express — other companies are headquartered far away, with vessels arriving here only occasionally.

And while some companies’ operating machinery near the docks is mammoth, such as Maersk Line or Seattle-based SSA Marine, others are tiny, especially the one-person owner-operator trucks that shuttle ocean containers a mile or so between dockside and the intermodal rail yards.

While depending on voluntary standards may seem too passive, Sue Mauermann, director of environmental programs for the Port of Tacoma, points out that there’s evidence it’s been working, and adds that the ports have little enforcement power.

Already about 65 percent of the port’s oceangoing ships, including Maersk and K-Line, have switched to low-sulfur diesel when at dockside, she said. And Husky Terminal, which operates at the Port of Tacoma, is using low-sulfur fuels and even biodiesel.

“Here in the Northwest,” she said, “people are independent and want to blaze their own trail, and not be told what to do, but get ahead of the game and be seen to take it on themselves.”

Contact: swilhelm@bizjournals.com • 206-876-5427

~ by fredfelleman on April 18, 2008.

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