Vanilla beans from Tahiti. Wool from New Zealand. Gold from Colombia. In 2014, the ports of New York and New Jersey handled more than $200 billion worth of cargo, making them the third busiest in the nation, behind Los Angeles and Long Beach. Across the oceans, a fleet of more than 50,000 ships works round the clock, carrying 90 percent of the world’s goods between countries and making it possible for us to drink water out of bottles made in China or wear sweaters stitched in Bangladesh. Shipping has revolutionized global trade and made our modern lifestyles possible.
But although it is one of the most efficient ways to move goods, shipping has also traditionally been a dirty one. And people who live near Brooklyn’s ports may pay a price—polluted air and increased rates of asthma and respiratory diseases—unless the city takes steps.
Oceangoing vessels burn vast quantities of something generically known as heavy fuel or bunker fuel—the viscous mess that’s left over once lighter fuels like gasoline and diesel have been extracted out of the original crude. When these highly unrefined fuels are burned they emit much higher ratios of particulate matter, sulfur, nitrogen dioxide, and nitric oxides than the diesel or gasoline used to power land vehicles, which have long been bound by environmental regulations prohibiting those particular pollutants.
Particulate matter, sulfur, nitric oxide, and nitrogen dioxide have all been linked repeatedly to higher asthma rates, respiratory issues, and various types of cancer, problems that have been shown to be particularly acute around port towns and cities. A 2007 study by researchers in the United States and Germany found that emissions near ports are responsible for 60,000 deaths annually, a figure the authors projected to rise 40 percent by 2012 due to an increase in global shipping.
“Shipping in general can be very efficient,” says Red Hook resident and shorepower advocate Adam Armstrong. “The problem is that those efficiencies are spread around the globe, but locally, if you’re living beside a cruise terminal or a container terminal it’s very concentrated. There are cancer clusters around ports. This city and the port authority don’t understand or are hoping people won’t know that there’s real health impact.”
Things are changing, albeit slowly. In October 2016, the International Maritime Organization imposed a stricter sulfur cap on marine fuels, mandating that levels be brought down to 0.5 percent, or 5,000 parts per million, by 2020 (current levels are 3.5 percent). The IMO estimates that this will cut sulfur emissions from ships by an estimated 85 percent.
In a September 2016 article John D. McCown, former CEO of the shipping company Trailer Bridge called sulfur caps “…a defining environmental issue that makes all other environmental issues facing the shipping industry pale in comparison.” But environmental advocates fear that the sulfur cap is too little too late, and that the new regulations, while an important step, do not go far enough. After all, they argue, 5,000 ppm is still 500 times greater than the 10 ppm allowed in cars in the United States.
While sulfur caps may potentially have the most dramatic impact on emissions reductions, other steps are being taken to make the shipping industry a little kinder on our lungs and air. One of these is the installation of shorepower systems, a network of cables that allows a ship to plug into a city’s electrical grid while dockside. Although the U.S. Navy and small pleasure boats have been using them for decades, the first commercial vessels have been plugging in only since 2000, mostly in Europe and on the west coast of the United States.
And just this November, Brooklyn’s Red Hook Cruise Terminal plugged in its first ship—the first system of its kind on the east coast of the United States.
Electrical systems on ships are just like household electrical systems—they need fuel to run. This means that ships in port must keep their engines on for power, spewing pollutants into the air for as long as they are docked. This is of particular concern for cruise ships, which may spend several days in port, idling their engines to run everything from sinks to slot machines.
Shorepower systems use massive cables to connect a ship to a terminal onshore that has been specially designed to be able to handle an increased electrical load, converting the voltage and frequency onboard to something compatible with the system onshore. And they seem to work—a report by the Daily Breeze, a Los Angeles newspaper, indicated that a decade after the city installed shorepower in 2004, visits to hospitals for asthma related incidents dropped in the area surrounding the port.
After intense lobbying by the local community and years of delays, Red Hook now has the only operational shorepower system on the east coast of the United States. In 2010, 47 cruise ships visited Red Hook, carrying more than 240,000 passengers.
Although the Red Hook developments were welcomed by local residents, some question why such initiatives are not front and center with all of the port development the city has undertaken in the past few years, and with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2011 promise to give “New York City the best air quality of any major city in the nation by the year 2030.”
“Why isn’t the city going full tilt with trying to green the ports? The Port Authority has been extremely behind the curve on all of this,” says Adam Armstrong, who lobbied the city for shorepower in Red Hook for years. “The west coast ports have been doing this for a decade. I think it’s being on the verge of neglectful and totally taking people’s health for granted, and expecting vulnerable populations to shoulder the burden.”
As the city searches for a new tenant to take over the lease at the recently reactivated 72 acre South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in nearby Sunset Park, many area residents hope shorepower will be part of the plans. Amy Varghese, a spokesperson for the NYC Economic Development Corporation, the organization charged with finding a tenant for the property, noted that the addition of shorepower to the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal would ultimately depend on the future tenant, but reiterated that, as the request for proposals notes, “maximizing the incorporation of green technology on the site,” is one of the city’s goals, and said “and it is one of the lenses through which we are evaluating the request for proposal responses.”
So will shorepower come to South Brooklyn? Residents will have to wait—and maybe hold their breath.