Shipping pollution a danger to Alaskans around Bering Sea

With climate change reducing Arctic ice, Aleut and Pribilof people will find themselves living at the crossroads of two shipping lanes -- the Great Circle route to Asia and the fabled Northwest Passage. It also means that those of us living in the Bering Sea region will be increasingly exposed to unprecedented levels of virtually unregulated emissions.

Ships in this region are allowed to use high sulfur fuels with 45,000 parts per million (ppm) sulfur -- a much higher level than those set in most U.S. waters of 10,000 ppm sulfur content for the majority of bulk fuel blends.

So Alaska waters are once again the battleground for resolving hydrocarbon pollution. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled crude oil that spread for hundreds of miles in the pristine waters along Alaska's coast. Our understanding at the time discounted oil as little more than a semi-noxious pollutant and a killer of birds. But oil toxicity research funded by the multi-million dollar settlement from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council changed that almost benevolent view of oil pollution. We now know it is thousands of times more toxic than realized. Marine species have continued to be effected long after that catastrophic spill, evidenced mostly by salmon not returning to spawning streams. Many other birds and mammals were also harmed or killed.

The pollution caused by burning high sulfur fuels can have the same toxic effects.

Large container ships, tankers, bulk carriers, cruise ships and Lakers are significant contributors to air pollution in many of our nation's cities and ports.

There are two types of engines used on large ships: main propulsion and auxiliary engines. The main propulsion engines on most large ships are "Category 3" marine engines with displacement greater than 30 liters per cylinder, which can stand over three stories tall and run the length of two school buses. Auxiliary engines on large ships typically range in size from small portable generators to locomotive-size engines.

Studies by the Environmental Protection Agency determined that emissions from large marine vessels burning bunker fuel within 200 miles of the U.S. west coast shore can result in serious impacts to human and environmental health as well as permanent environmental degradation as far inland as the Grand Canyon. As a result, the United States negotiated an international law preventing emissions from this fuel anywhere within 200 miles of the U.S. coast -- except for the regions from the Alaska Peninsula, through the Aleutians and Pribilof Islands, western Alaska and along the Arctic coast. These regions remain exposed and unprotected to bunker fuel burning up to 45,000 ppm sulfur content and unprecedented levels of virtually unregulated emissions. This at a time when the EPA requires all fuel for small marine vessels, highway, and non-road diesel engines, including locomotives, to be limited to 15 ppm sulfur content.


The EPA does not have any emissions monitoring stations in the Aleutian region. But the number of vessels moving through Unimak Pass is large and increasing, so we can't begin to know the exposure level to people living and working in the Bering Sea region.

We do know increased shipping activity and lack of emission controls over sulfur will contribute to the serious problem of ocean acidification and nutrient enrichment in the North Pacific Ocean through significant increases of nitrogen and sulfur deposits.

By 2020, international shipping is expected to account for 10 percent to more than 25 percent of total annual sulfur deposition along the entire Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific coastal areas of the U.S. The impact of these deposits will extend inland for hundreds of kilometers. This means international shipping will contribute to total annual sulfur deposition not only along all U.S. coastal areas, but throughout the entire U.S. land mass, impacting sensitive terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in the vast interior and heartland regions.

Researchers with a U.S. Forest Service study conducted in Southeast Alaska found evidence of sulfur emissions impacting lichen communities. The authors concluded that the main source of sulfur and nitrogen found in lichens is likely the burning of fossil fuels by cruise ships. Lichen are an important food source for caribou and there is a probability that large vessel emissions are damaging lichens and impacting the southern Alaska Peninsula caribou herd, which is an important food source to local subsistence-based cultures. This herd has been decreasing in size, has poor calf survival and low pregnancy rates which has resulted in the current ban on caribou hunting in this region. One can only imagine the effects these emissions are having on the dwindling Bering Sea fishing stocks.

Steve Sumida is the director of programs for Pribilof Aleuts Inc. Bruce Wright is senior scientist for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association. This article first printed in the fall/winter 2010 issue of "Northern Notes," the newsletter of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association. And it is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.