Ships Dump Pollutants to Avoid Fuel Ban
Thousands of ships are set to install “emissions cheat” systems that pump pollutants into the ocean to beat new international rules banning dirty fuel.
The global shipping fleet is rushing to meet a 2020 deadline imposed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to reduce air pollution by forcing vessels to use cleaner fuel with a lower sulphur content of 0.5%, compared with 3.5% as currently used.
The move comes after growing concerns about the health impacts of shipping emissions. A report in Nature this year said 400,000 premature deaths a year are caused by emissions from dirty shipping fuel, which also account for 14 million childhood asthma cases per year.
But the move to cleaner fuel could see harmful pollutants increasingly dumped at sea.
According to industry analysis seen by the Guardian, between 2,300 and 4,500 ships are likely to install an exhaust gas cleaning system known as a scrubber to meet the regulations on low-sulphur fuel instead of buying the more expensive clean fuel.
The scrubbers allow ship owners to continue buying cheaper high-sulphur fuel, which is washed onboard in the scrubber. In the case of the most used system, known as open loop, the waste water is discharged into the ocean.
Although expensive at around $2-4m per ship fitting, the cost of buying and fitting a scrubber would be recovered in the first year, the industry analysis says.
Cleaner low-sulphur fuel is likely to cost between $300 and $500 more a tonne, according to analysts.
Ned Molloy, an independent shipping analyst, said that although the scrubbers were allowed by the IMO as a way to meet the lower-sulphur emissions rules, they were little more than an “environmental dodge”.
Molloy said the scrubbers that had so far been fitted on the global fleet in advance of the 2020 deadline were mostly open-loop systems, which discharge into the sea, rather than the more expensive closed-loop systems, which require storage of waste water to be discharged into a facility on shore.
“This is sulphurous waste going into the sea,” he said. “It would be illegal to just dump this anywhere on land anywhere in the EU, except in specialist facilities.
“There is growing concern, particularly in EU countries, about whether open-loop scrubbers should be allowed.”
At the moment around 400-500 ships globally use scrubbers, but the huge increase in the number of vessels set to use them to meet the 0.5% sulphur emission restrictions has raised concerns that the impact on the marine environment has not been properly considered.
Pollutants in the wash water include particulate matter and sulphur, as well as metals including lead, nickel and zinc.
A study by the German environment agency, the UBA, in 2015 said: “The use of scrubbers causes environmental degradation through short-term and spatially limited Ph value reduction … increase in temperature and turbidity as well as pollutant discharge of sometimes persistent materials.”
In its report the UBA said the use of cleaner fuel was preferable to treating high-sulphur fuel in a scrubber.
The IMO low-sulphur regulations – confirmed this week – included an amendment that spelled out that scrubbers can be used to meet the emissions restrictions.
“The … amendment will prohibit the carriage of non-compliant fuel oil – unless the ship has an exhaust gas cleaning system (‘scrubber’) fitted,” the IMO agreed.
Many predict the rush to install scrubbers will increase in pace as the deadline approaches. Last month Star Bulk, a shipping firm based in Athens, announced it was going to equip its whole fleet with open-loop scrubbers by 2020.
Such is the concern about the environmental impact of scrubbers that some national governments ban the discharge of wash water within their ports.
The UN’s own advisers, the joint group of experts on the scientific aspects of marine environmental protection, have warned that increasing numbers of vessels using scrubbers by 2020 could lead to a potential increased risk and possible unintended consequences to the marine aquatic environment.
The IMO is reviewing the guidelines on discharging wash water from scrubbers after requests from several countries including the UK, Germany and the Netherlands that want sampling to improve so the environmental impact of discharging the waste water is better understood.