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Canada lags in acting on port health hazards
Studies link ship emissions to cancer risks

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 suggest.

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 causing sulphur.

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 said no.

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 others.

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 spokeswoman says.

"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 same district.

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 airport.

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 problem.

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 the situation.

"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 billion tons.

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 fuel.

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 emissions.

In spite of the immunity enjoyed by merchant ships, many nations including Canada have tightened certain regulations.

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 development.

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 nations.

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 their engines.

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 while docked.

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 Patton.

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 region.

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 while docked.

Meanwhile, routine cruise ship industry threats that the companies would simply take their business elsewhere have failed to materialize.

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Tuesday: What's next in addressing maritime pollution

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Fuel consumption

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, hoteling)

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 harbour.

Source: Entec, Levelton


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 decade.


Country Gross Tonnage

Panama 114,382,270

Liberia 51,450,917

Bahamas 31,445,118

Malta 28,170,010

Greece 26,401,716

Cyprus 23,206,439

Norway 22,604,136

Singapore 21,491,085

U.K. 19,245,442

China 16,498,790

Japan 15,256,624

United States 11,110,901

Russian Federation 10,485,916

Marshall Islands 9,745,233

Italy 9,048,652

According to Lloyd's Statistical Table * 31/12/2000

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