Missing the Boat on Protecting Human Health and the Environment: A Re-Evaluation of the EPA’s Emissions Policy on Large Ocean Going Vessels
Volume 81, No. 4, Winter 2008
By Eric V. Hull [PDF]

Air pollution is the inevitable consequence of neglect. . . . It will be controlled when the people of America . . . demand the right to air that they and their children can breathe without fear.

The international shipping industry serves as the backbone of global commerce. The industry is responsible for transporting approximately eighty percent of all trade volume to and from the United States, and approximately ninety percent of all trade volume among the members of the European Community. Between 1983 and 1998, world seaborne trade increased by seventy percent. Over the last decade, the industry has continued to grow at a steady annual rate of five percent. This growth has resulted in significant port expansion around the United States and abroad, and a concomitant increase in harmful vessel emissions. Despite the existence of strict national and international regulations aimed at reducing emissions from motor vehicles, refineries, and other land-based industry, engines used on large ocean-going vessels (“OGVs”) remain largely unregulated.

OGVs utilize large diesel engines that burn enormous volumes of the dirtiest and least expensive fuels available, which contain sulfur quantities several thousand times greater than that found in fuels used in other vehicles. As a result, OGVs significantly contribute to ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), nitrous oxide (N2O), sulfur oxides (SOx), and particulate matter (“PM”) inventories over oceans, in maritime ports, and near coastal communities. These emissions harm the environment and negatively impact human health. The impacts are particularly acute near maritime ports and coastal areas because approximately seventy to eighty percent of all OGV emissions occur there. In some coastal areas, OGV emissions are so significant that they reduce ambient air quality levels below that required by land-based emission regulations.

As ports continue to expand to accommodate the increase in seaborne trade, and air pollution regulations continue to focus on land-based emissions, the shipping industry’s contribution as a percentage of total anthropogenic air pollution is anticipated to grow significantly. Left unchecked, OGV emissions will add considerably to local air quality problems. To offset the increased emissions expected from the industry’s growth, significant reductions of the quantities of harmful substances emitted by OGVs are needed.

Despite recognizing in 1994 that marine diesel emissions pose a significant threat to human health and the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) has repeatedly failed to promulgate emission regulations for OGVs. In direct contravention of its mandate to protect public health and the environment from harmful pollutants, the EPA continues to defer to weak international emissions regulations that elevate foreign interests over the health and welfare of American citizens and the environment. As a result, millions of Americans continue to suffer from, or develop, health-related problems directly attributable to exposure to harmful OGV emissions. Moreover, the EPA’s failure to regulate one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses will directly contribute to the wide-ranging environmental destruction expected to result from climate change.

This Article examines the impact of OGV emissions on human health and the environment, with emphasis on the EPA’s role to protect American citizens and the environment from harm. Part II provides an overview of the pollutants contained in OGV emissions, and examines the health and environmental impacts of exposure to those pollutants. Part III examines the current and anticipated level of OGV activity within U.S. waters. Part IV evaluates existing national and international emission regulations applicable to OGVs transiting U.S. waters, and examines recently proposed amendments to MARPOL Annex VI. Part V provides recommendations for action, and argues that the EPA must immediately establish a comprehensive national program to regulate OGV emissions to fulfill its mandate under the Clean Air Act (“CAA”) to protect human health and preserve the environment.

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