Freighter congestion brings more dirty air to Southern California

The record-breaking backlog of cargo ships off the coast of Southern California doesn’t only make it harder to find furniture, children’s toys, or pet food in stores across the country. According to California regulators, this is also leading to an increase in dirty exhaust fumes that threaten the health of vulnerable communities nearby.

Dozens of ships run their secondary diesel engines when they anchor or drift near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the ninth busiest marine resort in the world. The stalemate first emerged last fall following Covid-related supply chain disruptions and, now that the holiday shopping season is approaching, is only getting worse.

“If you go down into the harbor you can see the ships going out for several miles and you can see the emissions coming out of their stacks,” said Taylor Thomas, co-executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. The organization works in East Los Angeles, Southeast Los Angeles, and the Greater Long Beach area, primarily in areas where black and Hispanic populations are exposed to industrial pollution and experience higher rates of asthma. Thomas herself lives in West Long Beach, about a mile and a half from the harbor.

(Not too far along the Orange County coast, a massive oil spill is choking beaches and wildlife after an oil pipeline leaked late last week.)

Experts say traffic jams along California’s southern coast and at other major ports across the country could be more than just a pandemic-era incident. Retail imports and e-commerce sales in the United States are expected to skyrocket in the coming years, and emissions from ships, heavy trucks, trains and port equipment are expected to increase in tandem, as long as all of these engines will continue to burn fossil fuels.

“This should not necessarily be seen as a temporary problem” but rather as a long-term challenge, said Sam Pournazeri, who heads the mobile sources analysis arm at California Air Resources Council, or CARB, in Sacramento. “We really need to think about cleaning up the ports and going zero emissions across the freight industry where possible to avoid these kinds of air quality issues.”

Freighters wait at sea due to congestion at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.
Photo by Gallo Images / Orbital Horizon / Copernicus Sentinel Data 2021

As of Tuesday, 63 container ships were anchored a few miles off the coast of Los Angeles and Long Beach, compared to a pre-Covid average of around a single vessel, said Captain Kit Louttit, who monitors port traffic for the Southern California Maritime Stock Exchange. As of mid-September, no less than 73 container ships were waiting to enter the port. Ships stuck in limbo run their small auxiliary engines to keep lights on, power communications equipment, and cool refrigerated shipping containers. Ships burn low sulfur diesel fuel, which is cleaner than “heavy fuel oil” ships use at sea, but still contributes to air pollution.

From October 2020 to March 2021, when supply chain bottlenecks caused major first aid, container ships near Los Angeles and Long Beach caused a huge increase in emissions of carcinogenic particles and smog-forming nitrogen oxides, which can damage the lungs and trigger asthma symptoms, according to the state’s resource council. On land, emissions from heavy goods vehicles and locomotives has also increased significantly on the same section that the ports handled more than 50% more freight than in 2019, before the pandemic struck.

The agency has not counted emissions due to port congestion in recent months. But, given that twice as many container ships are idling today as at the highest point in the spring, overall pollution has likely doubled as well, Pournazeri said. And the bottleneck isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Port of California officials said supply chain issues, worker shortages and limited warehouse space could hamper container shipping until next summer.

Increasing pollution from area ports will make it harder for Southern California to comply with federal air quality rules, including a deadline 2023 to reduce smog-producing emissions, according to CARB. It will also ensure that people living in neighborhoods close to ports are continually exposed to harmful contaminants. In the communities where the East Yard group is organized, residents are already experiencing higher incidences heart and lung disease, cancer, reproductive health issues and skin conditions from smog and ozone from highways and ports, Thomas said

Without recent efforts by regulators, pollution from the ongoing congestion would likely be even worse, said Bonnie Soriano, CARB’s branch head for the freight business. State and federal agencies, as well as port operators, have worked to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the maritime transport of goods. California requires ocean-going vessels to switch to low-sulfur fuel within approximately 28 miles of the coast. And containers, cruise ships, and other types of ships must shut off their auxiliary engines and plug into shore power – or use emission control technologies – once they dock.

From next year, the agency will start evaluating how to reduce emissions from anchored ships. This could involve the deployment of barges mounted with fuel cells, to which idling ships could plug in, or the use of systems that capture and clean exhaust gases from ships in the bay.

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Yet getting ocean freighters to shift away from fossil fuels entirely requires a global effort, as ships operate in many different countries.

A container ship full of T-shirts, electronics or household appliances must be able to use the same fuel when it leaves, for example, Taiwan as when it arrives in California, Singapore and the Netherlands. The International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency that regulates the world’s fleet, has adopted policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and reduce the fuel consumption of ocean-going vessels. But massive investments are needed to develop not only new types of vessel technology, but also to build the infrastructure necessary for the production and distribution of alternative fuels, Soriano said.

With this in mind, Ocean Conservancy recently sketched out a plan for the creation of a zero-emission shipping lane between five major ports on the west coast of North America, including Los Angeles and Long Beach. Each location could harness renewable energy resources to produce hydrogen, a carbon-free fuel that can directly power some ships and port equipment, or be used to create other fuels like green ammonia and methanol. The idea is to create a regional market that can serve as a model on a global scale.

“There is an opportunity to influence and drive decarbonization in other areas just through the example that [the U.S. and Canada] will be in place, ”said Victor Martinez of Ricardo Energy & Environment, a consulting firm that produced the Ocean Conservancy report.

Other environmental groups are working to clean up shipping by putting pressure on the biggest users of gas-guzzling cargo ships: big retailers like Amazon, Walmart, and IKEA. A recent report commissioned by Pacific Environment and found that importing some 3.8 million sea containers of freight on gas-guzzling freighters generated as much carbon dioxide emissions as three coal-fired power plants. The groups are urging the retail giants to pledge to use zero-emission ships by the decade.

Thomas said building renewable energy projects and alternative fuel infrastructure for freighters could create more jobs in East Yard communities, which have higher rates unemployment. “There are ways for us to create a new world that is built on jobs and industries that don’t produce damage,” she said.

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