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Operations along docks spew clouds of exhaust

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Operations along docks spew clouds of exhaust

By Mike Lee, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

Every time a cruise ship docks at the Port of San Diego, it brings a bonanza of tourists for bay-front eateries and attractions.

For downtown workers, residents and hotel guests, the floating resorts deliver something less desirable: soot belched by their idling engines.

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Cruise ships, such as the Monarch of the Seas at the Port of San Diego's cruise ship terminal, contribute to air pollution at West Coast ports.

During a typical visit, a cruise ship can spew as many diesel particles as a few thousand heavy-duty trucks, according to state calculations. Even when docked, cruise ships typically run diesel engines to power air conditioners, washing machines and refrigerators.

Cruise ships, however, are just one contributor to the long-overlooked air pollution of West Coast ports, which are the nation's entryway for Asian goods.

Port officials and ship owners in California are scrambling to curb smog from a variety of sources, from cargo ships and tugs to trucks and trains. Their efforts come in response to lawsuits, legislation and increased research about the dangers of diesel exhaust.

"It's an emerging concern," said Joy Williams, research leader for the Environmental Health Coalition, an advocacy group in National City. "All the indications are that ship traffic along the West Coast is going to increase and ... (air pollution) will be more of an issue."

While officials at the Port of San Diego are working to lower air pollution, they also defend their facility as an environmental benefit because cargo ships replace fleets of big rigs that otherwise would haul goods to San Diego from Los Angeles and clog the freeways.

"We think there is the potential to roughly double our business and double the congestion relief as we continue to grow," said Stuart Farnsworth, maritime program manager for the port.

California agencies are midway through a study aimed at reducing smog-forming emissions while expanding a port system that distributes goods nationwide. Options include using cleaner fuel for ships, adopting more stringent engine standards, phasing out old cargo-handling machines and reducing idling time forengines in port areas, including locomotives.

Such measures haven't been a priority until now because state and county efforts have focused on factories and commuters' vehicles. As San Diego County and other regions struggle to meet federal pollution standards, they're paying more attention to ports. The interest has been magnified by recent research exposing the dangers of diesel exhaust, which California health officials link to cancer and breathing problems.

"U.S. seaports are the largest and most poorly regulated sources of urban pollution in the country," said a 2004 analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has taken a lead role efforts to clean up California ports.

Oceangoing vessels are the largest source of pollution because they commonly use low-grade fuels and have inefficient engines. International ships are tough to regulate. One fix being pushed is the use of special electrical outlets to power ships while they're in port.

Cargo-handling equipment and trucks are considered a significant source of pollution for nearby neighborhoods. Fleet modernization, alternative fuels and reduced idling time are among the fixes.

Old train engines emit notoriously dirty exhaust, a problem made worse by long-term idling. New locomotives have far lower emissions.

Commercial harbor craft such as tugs and ferries have many of the same emission problems as other vessels, but can be more easily regulated by state and national rules because they stay in U.S. waters.

Little is known about the extent of the air pollution generated by the Port of San Diego, but that's about to change.

Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, D-San Diego, authored a bill this year that would direct the Port of San Diego to inventory its air pollution sources and find ways to reduce them. She's also working with port officials on non-legislative measures that might get the job done faster and cheaper.

The port – which expects to serve nearly 400 cargo vessels this year – aims to have a better handle on its emissions and reduction tactics by the end of 2005, whether or not the bill passes, said David Merk, the port's environmental director.

The cost of the upgrades and who will pay for them have not yet been determined, but the port will probably seek state grants for any major improvements.

Merk said the port already has taken steps toward cleaner air, including supplying power hookups for Dole Fresh Fruit Co.'s refrigerated containers and switching port vehicles to low-sulfur diesel.

Port officials also aided an effort to reroute heavy truck traffic around Barrio Logan, the neighborhood closest to its industrial terminal. Residents say they have suffered from diesel fumes for years.

About 350 trucks use the port's facilities each weekday, and many of of the trucks rumble down Barrio Logan's main road, César Chávez Parkway. With help from San Diego, most trucks are expected to be barred from the parkway by the end of the year.

Barrio Logan residents such as Patricia Cuevas, 37, are relieved. She watches semis loaded with new cars and trucks emblazoned with images of bananas chug out of port gates and past her tiny yellow house every few minutes.

Cuevas said through an interpreter that she's grown accustomed to the smell of truck exhaust but worries about its effects on her children.

"I'll have a restful sleep once they are out of the community," she said.

A major focus of Saldana's legislation is several blocks northwest of Barrio Logan – the port's cruise ship terminal. Port officials expect cruise ship dockings to reach a new high of 221 this year, a number that could hit 300 annually by the end of the decade.

Cruise ships typically stay in port up to 11 hours per visit, running at least one engine to get power for their guests. The state estimates that each ship's stay can account for 1 ton of nitrogen oxide emissions, a primary contributor to ozone pollution. San Diego fails to meet the federal ozone standard on a handful of days each year.

"It's contrary to our goals in San Diego of having a high quality of life to then expand an industry that is continuing to increase air pollution problems," Saldana said. "It's time to use the best available technology to reduce these risks."

The port is months away from deciding on the best pollution-control options. It is tracking ships to see if any of them visit regularly enough to be candidates for "cold-ironing," the term for plugging in to shoreside power.

With cold-ironing, vessels connect to more highly regulated power sources that are part of the regional transmission system. But installing it costs a few million dollars per terminal station and $500,000 to retrofit each cruise ship.

"This is not just plugging in an extension cord," said Mick Shultz, spokesman for the Port of Seattle, which tested its shore-power facility last month. "This is a major undertaking."

At the International Council of Cruise Lines in Arlington, Va., president Michael Crye said his members are adopting pollution-reduction measures including the use of low-sulfur diesel and smokestack filters. He said dockside power is one option but that it may not gain wide acceptance in places like Southern California that are "power challenged."

"None of the solutions is a panacea," Crye said.

Even so, a coalition of environmental and community groups is pressing state officials for immediate changes, including a mandate to connect all cruise ships to dock power within two years.

"There are lots of ideas out there," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica. "We just need ports like San Diego to implement them."

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