Large ships passing by Santa Barbara's 130 miles of coastline are polluting the air, and the Air Pollution Control District has had enough, threatening to file suit should the EPA not make changes.
From File

Statewide car emission standards and local regulations on business and industrial emissions have helped improve air quality throughout Santa Barbara County. But data from the county’s Air Pollution Control District (APCD) indicate that a lack of regulation on the seas is leading to more pollution from ships chugging through the Santa Barbara Channel. APCD has apparently had enough, as it has filed its intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If the EPA fails to increase regulations on large-ship engine pollution in the next 60 days-an unlikely scenario-APCD will join a lawsuit filed by the environmental group Friends of the Earth and by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which oversees Orange County and large portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties.

Air Pollution Control Officer Terry Dressler said APCD is looking at three basic strategies that the district says would help clean up the county’s air: requiring cleaner fuels, having all new ship engines meet higher emission standards, and forcing operating ships to install retrofitting technology. If changes aren’t made, Dressler explained, the APCD board-which voted 9-0 to file the intent to sue-is “very concerned if pollution degrades the air quality here, they’ll be forced to impose more regulations on local sources to meet health standards.”

In 1999, in accordance with the Clean Air Act, the EPA adopted a rule regulating ships with certain types of engines-but not Category 3 engines, and not foreign-flagged vessels, which comprise about 90 percent of the ships that pass by Santa Barbara County. Instead, the EPA deferred to regulations established by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). A 2003 lawsuit by an environmental group forced the EPA to establish new rules, but the EPA asked for more time to test and study new technology. A deadline of April 27, 2007, was set.

When April 27 rolled around, however, the EPA once again punted, providing what’s known as a direct final rule, which can only be made when the decision is expected to be “relatively non-controversial.” Dressler wrote a letter on May 8, commenting on the EPA’s direct final rule, but received no response from the EPA to the letter, and said he has not communicated with the EPA since. According to the direct final rule, advanced emission control technology only recently became available, and negotiations are currently underway to strengthen the IMO’s standards. With that, the deadline was pushed to December 2009.

Harmonizing air quality standards with the international community is important, said EPA spokesperson Margot Perez-Sullivan in a written statement, which also noted that the EPA is working “diligently with the International Maritime Organization to adopt stringent emissions standards” for foreign ships. “With almost no explanation, they kicked it [back] another two years,” said Bill Dillon, an attorney in the County Counsel’s office representing APCD. “It’s really disappointing.”

Ocean vessels passing the 130 miles of county coastline daily emit a significant portion of the county’s air pollution, said APCD officials. Since 2000, the number of transits off the county’s shores has increased by 15 percent to more than 7,000 trips annually. That number is expected to more than double by 2020, APCD officials said. Additionally, APCD division manager Tom Murphy pointed out that ships are being made larger, thus further degrading air quality. Oceangoing ships with Category 3 engines-cruise ships, tankers, bunk carriers, and container ships-produce more than 45 percent of the emissions of nitrogen oxides in the county. (Air-polluting nitrogen oxides form when fuel burns at high temperatures-most often in motor vehicles, electric utilities, and industrial, commercial, and residential sources that burn fuels.) Dressler said these ships have “very large, very dirty” engines that are among the largest engines in the world and burn a fuel high in sulfur content. However, nitrogen oxides aren’t the only emissions of concern, as components of smog pollution and carbon monoxide are also generated. More of the county’s air pollution is produced from the ships than from vehicle traffic on roadways, Murphy said.

Perez-Sullivan declined to discuss in further detail the EPA’s current situation. “EPA is committed to improving the air quality in Southern California,” she wrote. “Earlier this year, EPA took action to dramatically reduce air pollution from ships by proposing the most stringent international emissions standards ever.” But the plaintiffs in the suit and county officials maintain that the international standards are weak and provide no air quality benefits in U.S. waters, especially in light of how many channel-going vessels fly foreign flags.


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