Sunday, January 29, 2012

What is Bunker Fuel? The Pollution Threat From The Costa Concordia Cruise Ship Disaster

Photo: Friends of the Earth

As anyone who visits this blog regularly knows, I've had quite a hiatus from writing over the last 6 months or so. This is partially due to the events last year that secured a deal that guarantees the implementation of the use of shore-power at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. This plan should be up and running this year, 2012, and will allow the visiting cruise ships to turn off their idling engines and reduce the pollution and health impacts they have on our waterfront neighborhoods and their residents. This had been one of the primary issues addressed in this blog, along with waterfront development, transportation and environmental justice, so I guess the resolution* of this matter gave me a reason to slow down a bit. Additionally, my work life hasn't allowed me to spend as much time as I'd like at the computer writing on the important issues that effect our neighborhood. Despite this, I have been watching closely and trying to get information out about local issues, and I hope anyone who is interested in them follows me on Twitter - @viewfromthehook (see the end of this post for some recent stories you might have missed).

The events surrounding the recent Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster, however, have spurred me back to action and back to the computer keyboard to write again about the issue of ship pollution.

Apart from the terrible human tragedy that has unfolded over the last weeks, the Costa Concordia disaster has the potential to be a terrible environmental tragedy as well. At the time of the ship running aground, it had only been at sea for a few short hours, and, as a result, was carrying a full load, according to this article (here) from Marcie Keever at Friends of the Earth, (700,000 gallons) of fuel, for its journey. That fuel - the fuel that powers most large ocean going vessels (cruise and container ships) - has been the villainous subject of this blog ever since its inception.

That fuel is "bunker fuel".

Bunker fuel is, as Ben Goldfarb describes in this recent article (here), the "viscous, bottom-of-the-barrel residue of petroleum distillation, tar too thick to be burned by any vehicle other than an enormous ship."

Photo credit: NOAA

The shame of this is that this extra-dirty fuel is not only the source of harmful pollution as it is heated up, to make it less viscous, and then burned to power the diesel engines of large ships such as the Costa Concordia and the other cruise and container ships that ply the waters of the globe - which also idle constantly while visiting our ports. It is also that this fuel's very potent and viscous qualities would make for a huge environmental disaster if it leaked out into the pristine waters surrounding Giglio Island, off the Tuscan coast of Italy, where the Costa Concordia now rests.

(UPDATE - Monday: Coincidentally (perhaps?), James Kanter makes the same above point in the New York Times story on the subject today - HERE)

In 1999, in one of the worst environmental disasters from a bunker fuel spill, the "Erika", a tanker that was carrying 30,000 tonnes of bunker fuel, broke up in a storm and sank in the Bay of Biscay, off the Atlantic Coast of Brittany, France. The amount of fuel that was spilled was approximately 19,000 tonnes, and the ship sank between 30 and 50 miles off shore. The spill initially created a 10 mile long slick and, eventually, on-shore pollution that resulted in an oily layer up to 1 foot thick along the shores of the Loire River where it meets the coast, approximately 80 miles away. According to the web site of "Cedre", the Centre of Documentation, Research and Experimentation on Accidental Water Pollution, "a viscous oil layer, 5 to 30 cm thick and several metres wide, covered parts of the shoreline." Apart from the huge impact on seabirds, seals, shellfish and even salt production, much of the damage to sea life in the ocean and on the sea floor was not visible. But, as you can imagine, this was a massive environmental tragedy - one that France considers to be its worst environmental disaster which, according to this story at Guano Island blog, "polluted 400 km (250 miles) of coastline and caused damage valued at up to 1 billion euros ($1.30 billion)". It eventually cost the negligent ship-owners, who apparently were aware that the tanker was not seaworthy, $280 Million in compensation. This disaster also lead to the implementation of regulations that required oil tankers to have double layer hulls that would reduce the risk of such environmentally devastating spills.

Most importantly, this event has made clear the terrible impact such a spill would have if it ever happened gain.

Photo: Guano Island

Now, according to "Cedre", the Costa Concordia is only carrying a tenth of the quantity of bunker fuel (2,400 tonnes) compared to the "Erika" (which was not only being fueled by the substance, but transporting it as well). However, the cruise ship is right on the shoreline and is moving with the currents with the potential for its bunkers to rupture and spill the contained fuel, literally feet from shore and in pristine and protected waters. If that leak occurred, the damage to the eco-system and the shoreline would be dramatic, not to mention the damage to the economic health of the whole area (simulation here). Thankfully, the authorities are doing everything they can to ensure that this potential environmental and economic disaster never eventuates, and many of us around the globe are hoping for that positive outcome.

However, this disaster is another reminder of the unpalatable and harmful nature of this substance - bunker fuel - that propels the world's ocean going vessels, pollutes our air, harms our children's health and potentially damages our environment.

Let's remind ourselves, this viscous, tar-like, bottom-of-the-barrel, high-sulfur, (yes, cheap!) fuel - stuff that we all hope will not end up coating the Italian shoreline, killing its economy and eco-system - is being burned at sea in huge quantities to power these cruise and container ships, as well as being burned mere feet from our homes, and from our most vulnerable residents, while the ships idle on the edge of our waterfront communities. As Ben Goldfarb writes, in the previously mentioned article (here) -

"the ongoing use of bunker fuel is also one of the most appalling public health scandals in the world. Bunker fuel, when burned, produces an olio of airborne chemicals, including sulfur oxide, that have been linked with acid rain, asthma, and lung infections. In 2009 James Corbett, a University of Delaware expert on ship emissions, calculated that 64,000 residents of port cities die every year of bunker fuel-related ailments; in 2012, Corbett predicted, that number will rise to 87,000."

The great news for residents of Brooklyn is, some time later this year, these harmful emissions will cease to be produced in-port by the cruise ships visiting our neighborhood's Cruise Terminal. This is when the NYCEDC, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Carnival Cruises (who also operate the Costa Concordia), have promised to implement a long-awaited and hard fought for plan to plug-in the now idling ships to shore power while berthed at the terminal. (my post here)

The not-so-good news is that for the foreseeable future this bunker fuel will continue to be burned in-port and at sea by the container ships visiting the Brooklyn Container Terminal, and by every other cruise and container ship visiting our city, and in much of our country. That is apart from some ports and waters of the West Coast where a lot of work has been done over the last decade to implement such pollution-reducing and life-saving practices as the use of shore power - also called "cold ironing" - while the ships are in port.

There are regulations coming into effect over the next number of years that will reduce the amount of sulfur in the fuels that can be burned by ships using North American waters and using our ports. But, make no mistake, the fuel that will be used by these ships in the future will still be some of the dirtiest diesel on the planet - with Sulfur levels hundreds of times higher than is present (or legal) in the diesel used by trucks or trains, as opposed to the thousand times higher Sulfur levels that are present in the fuel currently used by ships.

So, even though there will be an improvement in the level of pollution that these ships emit while cruising the world's oceans and transporting our goods, if they're not using shore power when they're in port, the ships will still be idling, burning extra-dirty diesel and emitting harmful substances into our neighborhoods' air, compromising the health of our residents.

Additionally, they'll be buying and adding to our reliance on imported fossil fuels, adding to greenhouse gasses, creating soot or black carbon, and adding to the bottom line of already prospering multinational oil companies, instead of purchasing much cleaner electricity from our local, domestic utility companies, thereby helping our local economies.

This doesn't make sense - and it's unnecessary.

For my part, the Costa Concordia disaster is another reminder of what the real-life risks and impacts of shipping are, and the choices that we have to make to improve this industry's impacts. I'm not anti-cruise ships, per se. I'm not anti-industry - at all. It just seems to make sense that these industries should not be making their (sometimes minimally taxed) billions at the expense of the environment or the health of our residents, particularly our most vulnerable. The recent ship wreck on the Tuscan coast, like the one that created the environmental disaster in the sea off Brittany in 1999, is a reminder that we don't want bunker fuel - this noxious, bottom-of-the-barrel, viscous substance - ruining our environment and degrading our quality of life.

Whether it be as a result of a spill - coating the beaches of Brittany, the Mediterranean coast, the wings of seabirds or acres of unseen ocean bed - or whether it's being heated up and burned to power berthed ships, idling constantly at the edge of dense residential neighborhoods, with the resultant, yet avoidable, carcinogenic and asthma-exacerbating emissions being pumped into the air of our cities and into the lungs of our children, there is no place for this substance and its emissions in our environment.

It's time to say good-bye, and good riddance, to bunker fuel.

Photo: Wikipedia



Red Hook Star Review: American Stevedoring Out at Red Hook Terminal | Brownstoner story HERE

Port Authority Honcho: Red Hook/ BK Waterfront Like 'Vietnam', Trucks are Killing NYC | Brownstoner story HERE

Port Authority Boss: "Red Hook must be connected to Governors Island", if not, "the island will never reach its full potential" Crain's New York story HERE

@NYCEDC's East River Ferry feasibility study excludes most of Red Hook's 12,000 residents. In the study - page 25 - - even the "secondary market area" excludes most of Red Hook's 12,000 residents

NY's clean truck program sucks! (Same with ships) - Carroll Gardens Patch story HERE

What Clean Truck Program? Only 11 out of 7,000 replaced. MT : Port Authority Failure (via COWNA's Brad Kerr)

In fight against global warming, NASA calls for reduction of black carbon (i.e. soot)

My post on ships, black carbon and greenhouse gases from Dec. 2010

Plugging 1 container ship into shore power takes pollution = 33,000 cars out of LA's air - C'mon NY. We can do it too! Story Here

And from OnEarth Magazine -

Shocking stat: pollution from 2 dozen giant container vessels equals pollution from ALL of world’s 1 Billion vehicles

ONE container ship can emit as much pollution as 50 MILLION cars. Maersk Line is trying to change:

World’s freighter fleet puts out 3.5% of global warming emissions -- twice the share of aviation:


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