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"Smooth Sailing" in Shipping Creates Environmental, Health, and Security Risks

The 58,000-gallon (220,000-liter) oil spill in the San Francisco Bay early this month brought renewed attention to the environmental and health risks of marine shipping. Yet the disaster failed to highlight the lesser-known dangers that shipping creates daily, even when the industry operates as intended. A new report estimates that emissions from ocean-going vessels could be responsible for tens of thousands of deaths each year, and the shipping industry generates serious invasive species and security risks, according to experts.

The oil that spilled near San Francisco is particularly harmful to ecosystems, wildlife, and humans because it is bunker fuel, a toxic substance 1,000 times dirtier than the diesel fuel that runs trucks and buses. Partly because most shipping takes place on the open seas away from heavily populated areas, the industry's fuel standards are not as strict as those in the auto industry, critics say. Bunker fuel emissions of particulate matter are responsible for an estimated 60,000 deaths annually from heart and lung-related cancers, and that number is expected to increase by 40 percent by 2012 if there are no changes in regulations and if shipping continues to grow at current rates.

"Business as usual" in the shipping industry wreaks havoc on ecosystems as well, spreading invasive species far and wide. Ballast tanks, which are filled with seawater to keep marine cargo vessels upright, make "inviting habitats for all sorts of aquatic hitchhikers," write Irving Mintzer and Amber Leonard in their article "Trade and Consequences" in World Watch magazine. Non-native plankton, crabs, fish, mussels, and other creatures transported from one body of water to another can undermine entire ecosystems, decimating marine populations and the economies that rely on them.

But invasive species are not the only dangerous things ships can transport, according to Mintzer and Leonard. "Any standard cargo container is big enough to smuggle morethan a dozen people or conceal a dangerous quantity of weapons, drugs, or explosives," they write. The sheer number of ships plying the world's oceans--around 50,000 merchant vessels--makes it virtually impossible to thoroughly check all containers.

The delayed and disorganized response to the San Francisco oil spill did bring some attention to a lack of preparedness for security threats. A probe by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will look into the botched response to the spill. Concerned citizens and officials worry that a terrorist scheme using shipping pathways could elicit a similarly slow response.

This story was written by Alana Herro for Eye on Earth (e2), a service of World Watch Magazine in partnership with the blue moon fund. e2 provides a unique perspective on current events, newly released studies, and important global trends.

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Perhaps it would be a little more constructive to point out what has and is being done to address these issues.

While the 'smooth sailing' here might be an accurate depiction of the industry's past. It gives an distorted picture of state of the industry now and moving into the near future. An attempt at optimism would be nice, instead of scaring people..

First, while oil spills have an undeniably horrific and obvious environmental impacts, these are isolated (and relatively rare) events. Perhaps we could get better at managing when they do occur, but in terms of the ships themselves there is little more that can be done short of banning all shipping. Significant measures already exist to minimise this risk wherever possible. Many have been in place for over a decade. Most often in the form of strict design and operation rules.

Regarding ballast, the reality is the damage to ecosystems was complete long ago. It can't get much worse. Belatedly, the IMO & shipping industry have introduced rules requiring the majority of vessels to treat all ballast water, preventing transfer of living organisms between ports.In some sectors, these have been in place for a many years, in others they will come into effect in the next few years. All we can hope is that, this will enable the ecosystems to recover to some degree over the long term as a result.

While the emissions from ships are significant, shipping has long been (and will continue to be) the most efficient way to move tonnage over distance with the minimum of energy. Comparing to cars is not an accurate comparison. In the short term, moves are afoot in many sectors to move to cleaner burning fuels (high grade instead of HFO, LNG), invest in lightweight construction (weight savings = emissions reductions), optimise designs for efficiency. But until a new form a clean energy is invented or put into a form that can economically power ships, shipping will continue to be imperfect, but still our cleanest option for transport. This is unless all countries go ultra local and international transport is no longer needed. But if that ever happens there will be few winners and many losers.

As for security, I'm sure containers have been concealing large quantities of drugs, weapons and explosives for years without major incident. It's unlikely any wannabe terrorist is going to entrust their desired cargo to 10+ logistics companies, a few different ships and many other go-betweens and just hope nobody looks inside the box. When it's much easier just to gradually collect it in little bits in the garage.

As for people, I know its happened plenty, but I don't think the numbers volunteering to endure the above, plus anything up to a few months at sea in a small box will ever get that high. It's been possible for years, but I've yet to see many examples of ship-based terrorism or similar (piratage in the Malacca Straits excluded).

A bit less alarmist and a bit more positive next time please. I hear enough doom and gloom stories as it is.

But interesting all the same!

Posted by: Oliver on 27 Nov 07

After seeing the above story, it reminded me or this short article written by Donella Meadows following the Exxon Valdez spill which takes a more systemic look when reflecting on such incidents.

It is well worth a read:

Written in 1990, but isn't it of timeless relevance?

Using her approach, I would be interested in the wider context of spills that go on today (I was shocked to read what other spills happened in the month after Exxon Valdez), as further acknowledgement of us not paying the fullcost of oil and further incentive to ween ourself off our oil addiction.

Posted by: Carl on 1 Dec 07



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