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Clean-air advocates battle Oberstar over Great Lakes pollution proposal

Cargo ships move through ice on Lake Superior.
CORBIS/James L. Amos
Cargo ships move through ice on Lake Superior.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A battle over a proposal to regulate air pollution from ships is pitting clean-air advocates against industry groups and Midwestern lawmakers, including Minnesota’s Jim Oberstar, who claim the plan would further damage the recession-battered Great Lakes economy.

“The EPA’s proposed emissions rule would effectively doom an entire class of vessels that serve our port and jeopardize the useful lives of another 20 bulk cargo carriers currently in operation on these waters,” wrote Gerald Walls, president of the Port of Duluth-Superior Propeller Club, in a recent letter [PDF] to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The rule would require  new ships to have more efficient engines by 2011 and  all large ships operating in  U.S. waters and in defined coastal areas to use a lower-sulfur fuel by 2012.

Lower-sulfur fuel is about 70 percent more expensive than the fuel large ships now use, according to industry experts. In addition, about a quarter of the cargo-moving ships on the Great Lakes have engines that cannot run on lower-sulfur fuel. Each engine upgrade costs about $22 million.

“We are not opposed to the new engine regulations. What we are opposed to are the new fuel standards,” said James H. I. Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, which represents most  cargo-moving vessels on the Great Lakes. “It will have a catastrophic economic impact.”

Weakley estimated that the higher fuel costs combined with the engine overhauls could cost the Great Lakes shipping industry about $300 million.

Industry groups also say that the rule would disproportionately affect Great Lakes shipping because vessels on the Great Lakes would have to use the more expensive fuel for all trips since the ships operate in U.S. waters for at least part of their routes due to the geographic configuration of the Great Lakes and the navigation channels. By contrast, ships on the coasts would only have to use the fuel within about 200 miles of the country’s coastline. The rest of the time, these ships could use the cheaper fuel.

“The geographic component of the proposal clearly discriminates against the Great Lakes,” Weakley wrote in a letter to the EPA [PDF] on March 6, 2008.

‘Very cost prohibitive’
At the same time, ships on the Great Lakes also face competition from trucks and trains  that coastal shippers do not.

“So this all becomes very cost prohibitive,” said Steve Fisher, executive director of American Great Lakes Ports Association. “On the Great Lakes, shipping competes with trucking and train. So, we have asked the EPA to sort of hit the pause button and go back and analyze this a lot more.”

But last week the EPA’s Clean Air Act Advisory Committee — a stakeholder advisory group — told the agency not to dally.

The group, comprised of state and local representatives, engine manufacturers, automakers, refiners, public health experts and environmental organizations, unanimously recommended that the EPA carry out its emissions proposal and “decline requests for any geographic exemptions including, but not limited to, the Great Lakes.”

The EPA did not specifically look at the rule’s impact on the Great Lakes, but it predicts that the plan would cut emissions of nitrogen oxides in the United States by 1.2 million tons and particulate matter emissions by about 143,000 tons by 2030. The agency also estimates that the program would prevent between 13,000 and 33,000 premature deaths a year by 2030.

“Air pollution from large marine diesel engines affects not just populations living near ports and coastlines, but also those living hundreds of miles inland,” the EPA wrote in a fact sheet on the rule. “When people breathe this polluted air, their health is adversely affected leading to lost productivity due to increased illnesses, hospitalizations and even premature deaths. EPA believes that diesel exhaust is likely to be carcinogenic to humans by inhalation. Children, people with heart and lung diseases, and the elderly are thought to be most at risk. Reducing emissions from these large marine diesel engines will lead to significant public health benefits…” [PDF]

Still, industry groups and some lawmakers argue that the rule should be delayed because there hasn’t been a definitive analysis of what it would mean for the Great Lakes.

Last week, Oberstar and other members of the Great Lakes delegation met with EPA staff to discuss the proposed rule and the problems it may pose to the Great Lakes region.

Rep. Jim Oberstar
Rep. Jim Oberstar

“EPA was grateful for the invitation and appreciated the opportunity,” the EPA said in a statement. “The matter at issue is a proposed rule not a final one. EPA received a large number of thoughtful, valid public comments, including from the affected industries. EPA listens to public comments and takes them into account before issuing final regulations.”

But, according to a congressional aide close to the talks who requested anonymity due to the private nature of the meeting, the discussion did not immediately yield a workable solution for the lawmakers.

“They left their guitars in the cases and nobody sang ‘Kumbaya,'” the aide said.

Potential move by Congress
With the issue still unresolved, clean-air advocates are on the lookout for congressional action in the form of an amendment to the annual EPA spending bill, which would seek to limit the agency’s power to enact the rule.

In letters to House and Senate subcommittees last week, clean-air groups expressed their dismay at the possibility of a so-called rider to the 2010 Interior-EPA appropriations bill.

“The need for these rules is urgent,” wrote the American Lung Association, Clean Air Watch, the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. “Any delay will postpone the health benefits.” [PDF]

It’s unclear if such an amendment is on the table or what it would even look like.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, declined to comment  last week, but there have been reports saying that he might support such a measure.

In an interview with MinnPost last week, Oberstar spokesman John Schadl also indicated that the Minnesota Democrat might  back congressional action if the EPA refused to budge.

“We are just starting to call people back on the [Iron] Range after a big layoff. We want to keep people working,” Schadl said.

“If the EPA continues with its current course, if they proceed with this proposed rule-making as it stands, Jim would definitely be open to taking congressional action to make sure the Great Lakes industries are not disproportionately harmed,” he said.

Despite these arguments, clean-air groups have reacted with outrage over the pressure that members of Congress are exerting on the EPA to change its rule.

“They are essentially trying to pull a backroom deal,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. “It is appalling to think that Democrats such as Oberstar have been linked to this… I mean this is not an open process, this is a stealth attack.”

The American Lung Association of Minnesota, which also joined in a letter to Congress opposing  a rider, said it did not think the Great Lakes should be exempt from the rule.

“The particulate pollution from these ships can travel miles inland, reaching as far as North Dakota,” said spokesman Robert Moffitt. “So, it is very important that we start taking some concrete steps now to clean up these vessels and not delay it any longer.”

But on Tuesday, Oberstar indicated that the EPA and members of the Great Lakes delegation might be nearing some kind of agreement on the issue.

“We are working on how to address this,” Oberstar said. “…I’ll have something after tomorrow.”

Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by karl anderson on 10/14/2009 - 12:20 pm.

    This is a bunch of nonesense!

    We are going to choke to death to keep northern minnesotans employed? Time to move to North Dakota ladies. There are plenty of jobs there.

    Leave northern minnesota to the casinos and resorts where it belongs…..

  2. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 10/14/2009 - 01:29 pm.

    Refitting marine diesel [propulsion] engines to meet proposed EPA clean air regs is going to cost a fairly hefty price tag for Great Lakes ships. Also, it is going to take an inordinate amount of time to do so since there are only a couple of major shipyards on the major four lakes that can handle these large vessels. (Due to ships’ sizes, they can not exit the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway. {Locks are too small.}]

    There are no refineries in the Great Lakes Region dedicated full-time to solely making Diesel, marine fuels, or, Diesel POL[Petroleum, Oils, Lubricants] products to the new EPA or US standards. Thus, fuel costs will rise even more!

    OK, change the EPA regulations for cleaner air quality but be prepared for the costs and time required to do such. We all will have to pay for such, so let’s get it done in the most creative and judicious matter so as not to destroy Great Lakes shipping resources.

    Stop complaining or whining and let’s move forward to accomplishing cleaning up the atmosphere. A great challenge lies ahead!

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/14/2009 - 02:18 pm.

    Who will pay the price for these toxic environmental regulations? The people, not the shipping companies, will pay for this hidden regulation tax.

    The solution is for Mr. Oberstar to propose a bike path across the great lakes so we can bike in the goods.

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 10/14/2009 - 02:20 pm.

    Francis: The EPA is not seeking retrofits on older ships at this time, the rule applies only to new marine compression-ignition engines at or above 30 liters per cylinder.

    The EPA first gave official notice that they planned on changing this rule in November 2007, and there has been plenty of time for public imput and concerns raised. Murphy Oil has known this was coming for some time.

    So indeed, let’s stop complaining and whining and get the job done, as the on-road diesel industry already has.

  5. Submitted by Mary Tambornino on 10/14/2009 - 03:30 pm.

    I am dismayed. Here we have an EPA that may be on the right track, but the discussion is about the impact of the proposed regs on the shipping industry.

    How about the impact on me if they are NOT enacted. It seems to me that the reason for the proposed EPA rules is that the EPA thinks there is an impact and their proposal will mitigate it.

    Discuss it? Yes! But,discuss it to mitigate the impact on me/the population not to make it okay for the industry to keep doing this because it is too costly to do otherwise. This is not new news; industry has had enough time to solve its

  6. Submitted by Karl Pearson-Cater on 10/14/2009 - 04:16 pm.

    I received an e-mail from Francis Ferrel concerning the cut-line for the photo at the top of this page, where we previously indicated the photo had been taken near Duluth. CORBIS included that info in their description of the photo, however it appears that may not be the case. I thought Ferrel’s e-mail was interesting beyond the nice heads-up and asked to share in a comment. Here it is:

    + + + + + +

    The photo running with your Great Lakes EPA air standards story was not taken near Duluth! It looks like the St. Marys River area [Soo] in the 1970’s [or, at latest, very early 1980-2]! The foreground ship (fantail showing) is the USCGC Mackinac, an icebreaker; the Great Lakes freighter shown is an US Steel vessel, Arthur Homer{?} class before refitting as a self unloader; and, the smaller vessel shown near the US Steel ship is the USCGC Naugatuck, 110 foot Raritan class Coast Guard tug stationed at the Saulte Ste Marie [MI] Coast Guard base. The surrounding area landscapes are indicative of the St. Marys River area.

    I spent over eight[8] seasons/years serving in the Great Lakes Merchant Marine on various ships. I worked all ships departments from the wheelhouse to the bilges! Also, I am one of the last “coal passers” on the Great Lakes.

    I have 25 years experience with UPI, as a contract photographer and correspondent. During the all-year round shipping seasons of the 1970’s I was imbedded, at times, with the Coast Guard to cover the history making shipping experiment. I shot hundreds of feet of tv newsfilm and shot thousands of photo frames during my tenure. The Great Lakes is my backyard, so to speak.

    Great Lakes history is not just an interest but a passionate avocation that’s part of my life and personal background.

    Since Minnpost was probably using a stock photo from somebody’s archives, mislabeling of a photo caption seems to be the norm when Great Lakes ships or shipping are being referenced. It happens on History and/or Discovery cable channels frequently. Thus, I thought you might like to know of the photo caption’s location error. [Also, unless the picture was taken in sub-zero temps, the Great Lakes freighter, pictured, has a possible smokestack exhaust violation under then mandated exhaust regs of the period. How’s that for a chuckle regarding this story?]

    There you have it! The picture is not what is seems. The greater story is that if the EPA regs pass into full enforced regulations, Great Lakes shipping, as we now know it, will be in disasterous straits. Please see my written comments to this story as to why. Hope this helps you folks. This is one hell-of-a-story and the effects of it all has national consequences.

    Keep up the great journalistic work;
    Francis J. Ferrell

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/14/2009 - 04:59 pm.

    As a matter of protecting the health and well being of its citizens, the U.S. government should volunteer to pick up most of the costs of any retrofitting.

    I very seldom agree with corporations in a disagreement like this, but it does seem the shippers have a valid reason to complain this time that the costs would be pretty much insurmountable.

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/14/2009 - 05:19 pm.

    When I see Bob Moffitt rowing the first cargo ship around Pointe De Chenes I’ll be a true believer.

  9. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 10/14/2009 - 05:51 pm.

    Money and profit always trump health and education, clean air and water, a prosperous citizenry (not to be confused with the high rollers).
    I heard someone say the other day that almost no one (at least among elected repre-sentatives) ever tries to stop the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because they cost too much. Few raise an objection to giving administrations more money for 40,000 more troops. Let’s ask our elected officials to start applying the same standards to war as they do to our health.

  10. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 10/15/2009 - 03:55 pm.

    To: Cynthia Dizikes{MinnPost}& all MinnPost commenters;

    I have just spent several hours researching, reading, and trying to fully understand related eLinks and related material to this MinnPost article. What I discovered is a economic disaster waiting to happen to the Great Lakes Maritime shipping industry. For the sake of brevity and your time my comments will be brief.

    1) The US EPA Clean Act as related to marine vessels and their diesel powerplants is is structurally sound, stringent, and exceeds IMO[Inter.Maritime Organization] in some areas. Great Lakes[GL] freighters, which are lake-locked by size have no exemptive status are considered “oceangoing vessels” by all regulations. [see #2 MinnPost comments]

    2)The EPA standards do allow for diesel engine modifications or retrofits for vessels built before 01/01/2000 and after 01/01/1990. Before 01/01/1990, all vessel powerplants shall be retrofitted or retired{?}. References are various IMO/EPA/USCG fact sheets, guidelines, and regulations regarding compliance and enforcement. Check related regulatory links and PDF’s for amendments, details, and inclusions.

    3) With all research being equal, qualified, and referenced there are no comments concerning the Great Lakes, its ships, and unique maritime trading circumstances. All my research labels GL ships as “oceangoing vessels”. There are to date no exemptions to the contrary. This presents a dilemma for regulators and enforcement authorities. NOTE: Foreign flag vessels transiting and visiting the Great Lakes are required to be in regulatory compliance.

    4) Compliant marine fuels and/or marine POL products are only attainable at certain GL port locations at premium costs. As stated previously. MP posting #2, there are no Great Lakes petroleum refineries on-line[full-time] solely to meet land and maritime Diesel POL needs.

    5} Regardless of marine [Diesel]
    engine or powerplant displacements “retrofit kits” can be applied to older engines to bring them up to new specifications and compliance. The costs of these retrofits or rebuilts are not cheap and need a shipyard to implement.

    6) There are only two active US shipyards with large drydocks along with one active Canadian yard, major drydock, capable of handling the massive freighters. Thus, making retrofitting or rebuilding GL ships to EPA/IMO compliances will be time consuming.

    7) The cost for retrofitting Great Lakes ships will vary from $20-$35 Million per ship depending on age and size. It is apparent from the costs involved both the US and Canadian governments will have to come to the aid of their GL merchant fleets. The US government will have to shoulder most of the cost burden because of its fleets sizes. Shipping companies, mine owners, the industry, alone can not shoulder this monetary burden. It will be economically disasterous if both governments let their Great Lakes maritime interests go into non-compliance disarray. There is no other way out to meet the global clean-air standards.

    8) Under the present proposals and regulations, there are no mention of the special circumstances of the Great Lakes locked and restricted ships. An exemption for time and retrofitting, for the Great Lakes shipping interests, should be pursued post haste and with urgent dispatch. No where in the world are any Merchant Marine or maritime interests in such compliance dire straits as are the Canadians and US Great Lakes shipping fleets. An exemption is truly in order and sorely warranted.

    Given the time and money both the Canadian and American Great Lakes maritime industries can be in compliance. The industry is not against the regulations but only ask that the IMO and EPAs consider the unique set of circumstances that exist on the Great Lakes. Forget the politics and think of the future. We need Great Lakes commerce for our economic future and livelihoods. If we don’t help alleviate this possible economic and clean-air situation the resulting calamity will be disasterous and lead to a/an _____________; you fill in the blank space.

    Enough said. Read all the related fine print and links. You will see what I mean.

  11. Submitted by antony cliffton on 10/16/2009 - 05:46 pm.

    What else did lobbyists tell you to say this week Jim?
    This guy has been a mouthpiece for anyone who will contribute to his reelection campaign for decades. Possibly the craziest idea inserted into his cerebellum lately is the ‘track every car’s mileage with GPS boxes made by his buddies and charge us for the miles we travel tax”. Sorry I forgot the real name of this harebrained scheme. The gas tax works to well I guess, low mileage crappy mileage cars use more gas and pay more, efficient cars pay less. We don’t need another complicated system of levers and pulleys to increase gas tax revenues. Just raise the gas tax moron as the fleet gets more efficient. -Democrat against Oberstar.

  12. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 10/19/2009 - 11:41 am.

    “Compliant marine fuels and/or marine POL products are only attainable at certain GL port locations at premium costs. As stated previously. MP posting #2, there are no Great Lakes petroleum refineries on-line[full-time] solely to meet land and maritime Diesel POL needs.”

    I don’t see this as an impediment. I would guess that part of the reason this is currently true is due to the lack of demand for such fuels. Once it is required that these ships use compliant fuel I’m certain the free market system will ensure that compliant fuel is produced by refineries and noncompliant fuel is not. In other words there will only be demand for compliant fuel and that demand will be supplied.

    Perhaps there is a “carrot” way to defray some of the costs to the shipping industry. Allow them to improve fleet performance over a longer time period or offer some enhanced depreciation for assets they are forced to upgrade.

  13. Submitted by antony cliffton on 10/21/2009 - 03:23 pm.

    Maybe Jim should also look into the offshore maintenance facilities all the airlines have switched to the last 5 years in their cost and job slashing spree. How about bringing that work back to the states? High paying skilled jobs for the taking when we need them most. NPR did a great series on this topic this week. Undocumented, out of spec repairs being done by El Salvadorians making $3.50 per hour.
    Along with the under paid entry level pilots we have flying commuter planes in this country this will surely end in more disasters. Why not avoid this and provide the jobs now instead of waiting for more carnage? Jim no one knows what you’ve been doing the last 30 years save for all the pretty black top up on the range.

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