Lower Mainland residents are facing higher cancer risks
and other health threats as a direct result of ship
emissions and other activities from the Port of Vancouver,
studies from U.S. and European pollution authorities
Ship emissions are considered by European and U.S.
authorities to be a major global problem that rivals
land-based air pollution sources of nitrogen and acid-rain
They say ship emissions and diesel exhaust from port-related
activities are annually responsible for thousands of
deaths in their jurisdictions and that a connection
between cancer and diesel fuel emissions is inescapable.
Ship emissions are only loosely regulated and in most
cases the ships causing the pollution come from foreign
nations that are able to resist international pressure
to clean up their smokestacks.
Officials with Environment Canada and the Greater Vancouver
regional district have begun to tackle the problem locally.
But a Vancouver Sun investigation found the region
is far behind others in its attempts to publicize and
deal with it --although the international hazard posed
by ship emissions was well documented by 1997.
As well, discussion about threats to human health and
the environment from ship emissions have raged in Europe
for several years.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
exposure to diesel exhaust poses a lung cancer hazard
to humans as well as a risk of other types of damage.
So far the Port of Vancouver has done nothing on the
premise that individual action would threaten its business
-- even as it moves ahead with plans for another major
expansion of its operations.
Asked specifically whether the port has any measures
in place similar to those in other jurisdictions, the
port authority's director of environmental programs
But Alicia Blancarte said there are discussions under
way to get other ports and Vancouver to take similar
measures so no one has a competitive advantage other
Blancarte said the port of Vancouver is cooperating
with Environment Canada to find ways to reduce emissions.
The port of Vancouver regularly vies with Long Beach,
Calif., as the busiest west coast port in North America
-- winning the title of busiest port in years when coal
tonnage shipped from Point Roberts is highest.
Vancouver port officials say they want unanimity among
all west coast ports before they take any action --
even though many of their rivals have already begun
to deal with the problem.
Officials who monitor air quality around rival merchant
ports in Seattle, Long Beach and Los Angeles, as well
as cruise ship destinations in Alaska have all taken
significant steps to reduce the health risks, and experts
warn that the Lower Mainland must also take action to
deal with similar risks.
"Everyone is struggling to control diesel particles
because the information we have about them suggests
that of all the urban particles, these are the ones
that are mostly responsible for the adverse effects
on health," says Dr. David Bates, former head of the
University of B.C. department of medicine.
Bates says there's no level at which diesel emissions
are safe and the risk is greatest for people living
along main highway routes that feed into and out of
the port of Vancouver because of concentration of diesel
from trucks carrying cargo to and from the port.
"Although the levels are low enough that we're better
off than many places, there is no absolute threshold
for effects. Presumably even though we're at the low
end of the scale there are still effects occurring.
"We have every reason to be very suspicious of diesel
particles in terms of health effects and health outcomes."
A recent report by a San Francisco-based environmental
group calculates ship emissions account for 14 per cent
of global nitrogen levels and 16 per cent of sulphur
emissions from all petroleum sources.
The Bluewater Network used the threat of court action
to force a reluctant U.S. government to agree to deal
with the problem, and is planning further lawsuits next
January if regulations aren't sufficiently tough, a
"People are getting sick and dying because of shipping
emissions and that's totally unacceptable," said Bluewater
campaigner Teri Shore, who noted the worst offenders
are foreign flagged ships that take cargo into and out
of southern California's bustling ports.
"It's occurring in the name of profit for foreign flagged,
foreign owned ships which have no accountability to
the local communities.
"If people living around the port of Vancouver make
it known that they will not accept it, if they organize,
if they tell the port officials they want something
done and let their government representatives know how
they feel, then something can and will be done."
In California, south coast air quality management district
executive officer Barry Wallerstein calls a port air
quality cleanup "one of the most difficult and complex
environmental challenges in the nation," saying emissions
from the port affect the health of each of the area's
15 million residents.
"We did probably the largest ever study in the United
States of urban toxic air pollution," says district
spokesman Sam Atwood.
"We monitored and modelled the ambient levels of toxic
air pollutants, and looked at what the actual cancer
risk was. To no one's great surprise we found that the
port area was among the highest cancer risk levels.
"It's because there is a large concentration of diesel
emissions. That includes not only the ships, it's also
the trucks and the locomotives that bring the cargo
to and from the port. It's also the landside stationary
and mobile equipment that moves the cargo around."
A recent study by the district found a higher risk
of cancer for people living around the Long Beach port
than for people living next to oil refineries in the
The study found that 70 per cent of airborne cancer
risk comes from diesel particulate emissions -- which
are coming mainly from ships, trains, trucks and loading
vehicles serving the Long Beach port.
It found that marine vessels pump out as much nitrogen
oxide each day as the top 300 industrial facilities
in the Long Beach-Los Angeles region, including all
power plants and refineries.
The other highest-risk area was for those living in
the area of the main approach path of the Long Beach
The study quantifies the annual risk as 1,400 per 1,000,000
long-term residents likely to contract cancer as a result
of exposure to air pollution, based on data from 161
air pollution monitoring stations in the state.
The study may actually understate total health risks,
officials note, because it only looked at cancer risks
-- not the risk of contracting other diseases including
emphysema, asthma and bronchitis, as well as decreased
lung growth in children from ship emission byproducts
such as ozone.
The problem is considered more acute on the west coast
than in Eastern Canada and the U.S. Atlantic coast,
where diesel emissions from trains are seen as a bigger
However, an exhaustive report on the Saint Lawrence
River basin and the Great Lakes in 2001 by Canada's
commissioner of the environment failed even to discuss
"I have to admit, it's not an issue that has been raised
to any large degree," says Raymond Johnston, president
of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, an Ottawa-based lobby
representing shipping companies and large industrial
exporters across Canada.
Across the globe, some 92,000 merchant vessels ply
the world's oceans, with predictions that international
shipping could triple within 20 years thanks to trade
barriers that have been lowered by the World Trade Organization.
The average ship is 14 years old, with oil and dry
bulk tankers comprising 70 per cent of the fleet.
World seaborne trade recorded its 15th consecutive
annual increase in 2001, reaching a record high of 5.88
Ships are considered by U.S. environmentalists as fairly
energy efficient -- but they remain the world's most
unregulated transport system, governed by international
law that supercedes any continental or national regulation.
The problem is that international anti-pollution laws
developed by the International Marine Organization --
a sort of United Nations for seagoing vessels -- are
seen as fairly ineffectual.
Member nations of the IMO are currently considering
a proposal to require ships to use lower sulphur diesel
The proposal must be accepted by 15 states comprising
at least 50 per cent of world merchant shipping tonnage
in order to come into force.
It has been ratified by six states representing approximately
25 per cent of the world tonnage --Bahamas, Liberia,
Marshall Islands, Norway, Singapore, and Sweden.
Most European states have also indicated they will
support it, meaning it might come into force by mid-2004.
The standard is seen by environmentalists as too low
to improve the situation -- although it could be a departure
point for concerted national and local action against
In spite of the immunity enjoyed by merchant ships,
many nations including Canada have tightened certain
For example, foreign ships coming into the port of
Vancouver must dump their ballast water in mid-ocean
to reduce the threat that they will introduce an alien
species into local waters.
South of the border in the wake of the Exxon Valdez
disaster, the U.S. requires that all new oil tankers
along its east and west coasts be double-hulled to reduce
the risk of another major oil spill.
Air emissions restrictions are a comparatively new
In late November, the European Commission adopted a
strategy to reduce the role of ship emissions in generating
acid rain that threatens sensitive ecosystems, as well
as adverse impacts on human health.
A key element of the strategy is a requirement to cut
sulphur content by half in marine fuels used by ships
as they travel through European waters --although the
content will remain several orders of magnitude greater
than the amount of sulphur in gas for automobiles.
At present, a ship emits 30 to 50 times more sulphur
per tonne than a truck when tonnage and distance are
evened out. When lowered sulphur limits in diesel fuel
for trucks take effect in 2005, the gap will widen to
between 150 and 300 times more sulphur per tonne kilometre.
The European regulation comes as 15 members of the
European Union cooperate to curtail all manner of environmental
degradation across the geographic boundaries of individual
Fuel used by ships in European ports must be of a far
higher grade than what would be used on the open sea,
with consequent greater reductions in sulphur emissions.
The European Commission calculates the annual benefit
will be in the vicinity of 2,000 lives saved through
reduced exposure to emissions.
Nor are Europeans the only ones taking action.
U.S. studies have identified the west coast of North
America --including Greater Vancouver -- as one of the
world's worst ship-caused pollution zones, with ships
in the North Pacific pumping out as much nitrogen as
half of all ground-based sources in North America.
In the port of Los Angeles, a program is already under
way that subsidizes the cost of local tugboats upgrading
Last week, the mayor of Los Angeles made headlines
on an Asian tour where he sought to sign up Asian shipping
companies to a program under which they would shut off
their engines and plug into the local electrical grid
A spokesman with the port of Los Angeles said he expects
other ports up and down the west coast will eventually
adopt similar measures aimed at cutting emissions.
"In time, all of these other ports will have the same
pressures on them that we have on ourselves. That is,
you have local communities who become aware of the potential
health risk associated with diesel, and want the levels
reduced," said port of Los Angeles spokesman Christopher
In Seattle, a May 2002 "Air Toxics Evaluation" by the
Puget Sound Clean Air Agency found diesel fuel emissions
account for 77 per cent of airborne cancer risks in
The study found the risk of contracting cancer no worse
than half the level of risk in the Los Angeles basin.
But officials contacted the Seattle port authority about
their concerns, and got results.
"We said there is the possibility that they [cruise
ships] could use low-sulphur fuel. We went to the cruise
lines. They said they could do that," recounted port
spokesman Mick Shultz.
"Next door to you in Seattle, the port is requiring
cruise ships that enter that port to use low-sulphur
diesel fuel. That's something Vancouver could easily
do," says Bluewater's Shore.
"That's just for cruise ships --something like that
could be done in Vancouver. It's a significant step
in the right direction."
Cruise ships face similar controls in Alaska, the northern
end of the cruise route that includes Vancouver.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Alaskan department of
environmental conservation officials began warning of
tough, punitive measures against cruise lines that were
burning cheap, dirty diesel fuel.
The emissions were reducing air quality in communities
along the Alaskan route and obscuring the wild, unspoiled
vistas that draw tourists north in the first place.
Through the 2002 season, cruise lines including Celebrity,
Princess, Holland American, Carnival and Norwegian were
hit with fines totalling more than $900,000 Cdn for
various air pollution offences, including running engines
Meanwhile, routine cruise ship industry threats that
the companies would simply take their business elsewhere
have failed to materialize.
- - -
Tuesday: What's next in addressing maritime pollution
- - -
In Los Angeles, where it was estimated that a ship
can burn 7 tonnes of fuel while sitting idle in port,
pressure is mounting to provide electrical power that
would allow mariners to stop running their engines while
docked. But in most ports ships generate their own power
by running their massive engines all the time.
Average fuel use WHILE IN PORT , for ocean-going vessels:*
Type of vessel
Fuel oil used (tonnes)
Diesel used (tonnes)
Kilos SOx, NOx produced
Hours typically spent in port (loading, unloading,
Container ship 12.3 4.1 330 14.3
Tanker 0.9 0 1,780 18-46
Bulk carrier, small 2.9 0.6 1,490 12.5-90.5
Bulk carrier, large 16.5 1.6 92 12.5-90.5
Passenger 11.4 1.4 1,250 13.6
*Fuel use figures are drawn from different data than
average docking time. Figures are not specific to Vancouver
Source: Entec, Levelton
ABOUT BUNKER FUEL
Freighters rely on relatively inexpensive bunker fuel,
which is based on heavy crude oil but may contain other
ingredients such as used automobile oil.
Pressure to burn cleaner fuels has been high in Europe,
where the additional cost to mariners of low-sulphur
oil is estimated at $12-14 US a tonne. Experts say that
higher standards in one market will simply drive mariners
to buy their fuel elsewhere (world's top 10 bunkering
ports are indicated on large map).
With world trade increasing, demand for bunker fuel
is forecast to grow 1.5-2 per cent a year over the next
Country Gross Tonnage
United States 11,110,901
Russian Federation 10,485,916
Marshall Islands 9,745,233
According to Lloyd's Statistical Table * 31/12/2000