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Melissa Lin Perrella’s Blog

Smooth Sailing

Melissa Lin Perrella

Posted July 6, 2009 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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I used to practice law at a major corporate law firm.  Most cases ended with money exchanging hands--one corporation that breached a contract would pay monetary damages to another.  Sure, sometimes the monetary damages were huge, causing a shift in business practices and maybe a firing here or there, but in the grand scheme of things these cases and the court decisions emanating from them had little impact on the daily lives of normal folks. 

However, on Tuesday evening, just as many of us were bathing our kids before bedtime or preparing our evening meal, the Eastern District Court of California issued a decision that will prevent more than 3,500 premature deaths and nearly 100,000 asthma attacks over the next six years.  See the LAT coverage about this public health victory.

As discussed in the LAT article, the state of California was given the green light, despite a lawsuit filed by the shipping industry, to require ocean going vessels that visit California's ports to use cleaner fuels.  These ships are huge, as are their emissions.  The main engines on these vessels tower five stories high and produce enough power to sustain 30,000 homes.  And their daily particulate matter emissions are the equivalent of 150,000 big rig trucks traveling 125 miles per day.  Why are ships so dirty?  Part of the problem is that they generally use "bunker fuel," which is over 1,500 times dirtier than the fuel used by big rig trucks.  But California's new regulations will change that. 

And it's amazing what simply requiring ships to use cleaner fuel can do.  The regulations will reduce diesel particulate matter emissions by 74 percent and sulfur oxides by over 80 percent.  The South Coast Air Quality Management District filed a brief with the court saying that it would be "impossible" for the Los Angeles region to meet federal air quality standards without the State's rules; that's because ship emissions are such a huge slice in our state's pollution pie.  It's for this reason why NRDC helped defend California's new rules in court. 

Further, California's rules would cost the shipping industry less than one percent of the total cost of a typical trans-Pacific voyage, and in their lawsuit, the shipping industry admitted that these costs aren't unreasonable or overly burdensome.  And they didn't even assert that compliance with the rules was technically infeasible or even difficult. 

In response to the court's decision, the shipping industry stated that they favor international standards instead of states acting alone.  Truth be told, we'd all like a global solution to ship pollution, but we need one that addresses the disproportionate pollution burden California bears as this nation's gateway to international trade.

As the LAT's reports, federal and international efforts are underway to try to address ship pollution.  But those efforts aren't as health protective as California's new rules nor are they set in stone.  For instance, federal EPA is proposing new engine and fuel standards for U.S. flagged ships.  The federal fuel standard, if adopted, wouldn't kick-in until 2015--one year after the Los Angeles region is required to meet federal air quality standards.  And EPA's proposal doesn't cover foreign flagged ships--the ships that frequent our harbors to satisfy this nation's insatiable appetite for cars, ipods and cheap tennis shoes. 

So, while I support and applaud federal and international efforts to tackle ship pollution, California can't wait for someone else to solve its pollution problems or conveniently pass the buck.  And thankfully, our justice system agrees it shouldn't have to. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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