EPA Unveils New Ports Emissions Plan

Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced a proposal Monday to tackle harmful emissions from cargo ships. A recent EPA Inspector General's report criticized the agency for regulating only one pollutant coming from U.S.-flagged ships though foreign-flagged vessels account for 90 percent of ships calling at U.S. ports.

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Today, the U.S. government took a major step toward curbing pollution from ships. Emissions from ocean-going ships kill tens of thousands of people around the world each year. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: The Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard asked the International Maritime Organization to require that ships travelling within 230 miles of US coasts use cleaner fuel. They want to cut sulfur in that fuel by 98 percent and strip out other pollution. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson says the cleanup is long overdue.

Ms. LISA JACKSON (Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency): It will make a huge difference in air quality. Our studies show that air quality in places as far away as Kansas will benefit from this being done on the West Coast ports in California.

SHOGREN: The cleanup will come in stages, but Jackson says by 2020, the impact will be dramatic.

Ms. JACKSON: The estimates are over 8,000 lives saved and literally millions of people whose health will be improved by our proposal today.

SHOGREN: James Winebrake is a professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He co-authored a report that found 60,000 people around the world die each year from air pollution from ships. That's because ships burn very dirty oil, called bunker fuel. It has a high sulfur content.

Mr. JAMES WINEBRAKE (Professor of Public Policy, Rochester Institute of Technology): That pollution gets turned into particulate matter. And particulate matter from these types of vessels are carcinogens and they cause lung cancer, and they also cause heart disease.

SHOGREN: And trigger asthma attacks and impede the development of children's lungs. Winebrake says requiring ships to burn cleaner fuel near shore would make a big difference.

Mr. WINEBRAKE: That will end up saving a lot of lives and will go a long way to improving the health of Americans and Canadians.

SHOGREN: Charles Connor, president of the American Lung Association, says port pollution is much more harmful to Americans' health than most people realize.

Mr. CHARLES CONNOR (President, American Lung Association): It's especially bad on people, frankly, who live around the port cities.

SHOGREN: He says while a lot of people were unaware of the pollution caused by shipping, it wasn't a surprise to him because he's a former Navy captain.

Mr. CONNOR: We, in the Navy, see lots of merchant ships, and my experience has been that they spew out all kinds of smoke.

SHOGREN: Today's announcement came after a report by the EPA's Office of Inspector General criticized the agency for not doing enough to regulate pollution from ocean going vessels. Although the EPA regulates one pollutant, nitrogen oxides from U.S. flag ships, 90 percent of ships that call on U.S. ports are foreign flagged, and they're not regulated at all.

Joe Cox is the president of the Chamber of Shipping of America. He said international shipping companies recognize they have to address their exhausts even though it will be expensive.

Mr. JOE COX (President, Chamber of Shipping of America): As we sat down at the table, we realized that we are part of the air pollution problem, and we're going to have to accept some requirements so that we are not a part of that problem.

SHOGREN: The Bush administration laid the groundwork for today's announcement. It took the lead in negotiating the new international agreement that allows countries to require ships to slash pollution.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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