NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - The United States has asked the United Nation's International Maritime Organization to create a buffer zone around America's coastline to cut pollution from ocean-going ships that harms human health, the Environmental Protection Agency said on Monday.
"This is an important and long overdue step in our efforts to protect the air and the water along our shores and the health of the people in our coastal communities," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Under the proposal, which was also submitted to the IMO by Canada, big vessels like oil tankers and cargo ships that operate in a 230-mile (370-kilometer) "emissions control area" extending from two countries' coastlines, would face stricter smog and particulate pollution standards to reduce the threats the emissions pose to humans and the environment.
The United States asked the IMO to create the boundaries because some 90 percent of the ship calls on U.S. ports are made by foreign-flagged vessels.
The EPA estimates the plan would save up to 8,300 lives annually in the United States and Canada by 2020. Urban neighborhoods that surround ports, like the hubs of Newark, New Jersey and Los Angeles, have typically suffered the worst health problems, such as asthma and cancer, from the pollutants, according to EPA studies. Some 40 U.S. ports currently fail to meet federal air pollution standards.
Environmentalists applauded the action. "Ships are floating smokestacks that deliver soot and smog straight to the heart of our most crowded cities, home to 87 million Americans," said Andy Darrell, a vice president for the Living Cities program at the Environmental Defense Fund. He said emissions control areas would cut ship pollution as much as 96 percent by 2015.
The plan would cost some $3.2 billion annually by 2020 in ship retooling, cleaner fuels and other expenses, but save up to $28 billion per year in health care costs, according to the EPA.
Byron Bunker, an EPA emissions expert, told Reuters the plan would add about $18 per 20-foot (6-meter) container unit on a typical shipment from China to the U.S. West Coast, which boils down to "about a penny per pair of tennis shoes."
The plan, which the IMO is scheduled to review starting in July, would cut sulfur in fuel by 98 percent, particulate matters emissions by 85 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 80 percent from current global limits.
Ships can control sulfur and particulate pollution by burning cleaner, more expensive, diesel fuels than the bunker fuel they traditionally burn. Nitrogen oxide emissions can be controlled with engines that burn fuels more efficiently.
Beginning in 2015, fuel used by ships in the buffer zone would not be allowed to exceed 0.1 percent sulfur. Beginning in 2016, new engines on vessels operating in the zones must use emission controls to control the nitrogen oxide pollution.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which also helped form the proposal, would enforce the rules in the U.S. buffer zones.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner, editing by Marguerita Choy.)