The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed tough new measures to reduce the health toll from air pollution around the Great Lakes by forcing lake freighters to stop burning dirty bunker fuel.
But the plan has an unusual opponent: The Canadian embassy in Washington has quietly asked the EPA to weaken the measures, arguing that they could harm trade. It wants ships to be allowed to continue using the high-polluting fuel and to instead install smokestack scrubbers that would clean up their emissions. The Canadian recommendation, if accepted, could delay the clean-air measure for years, because the technology for the scrubbers does not yet exist.
The embassy asked the EPA to make the changes in a letter last month, marking a rare instance in which Canada has lobbied the United States to weaken air-pollution controls designed to reduce health problems linked to breathing dirty air. Because winds carry contaminants back and forth across both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, the EPA proposal would also lead to air-quality improvements in Canada.
The Canadian position is supported by the Great Lakes shipping industry, which is warning that the costs of complying with the proposed environmental regulations are so high that they will force companies to scrap some of the iconic steamers that now ply the lakes carrying everything from salt to iron ore.
But environmentalists, who have been waging a campaign against bunker fuel, a thick, gooey asphalt-like material laced with impurities such as sulphur, are outraged.
"I'm actually shocked that the government of Canada would take that kind of position, because it means effectively creating a dirty-fuel zone in the Great Lakes. That would be dirty air that would affect Canadian residents as well as residents in the states nearby," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based environmental organization.
He said bunker fuel needs to be eliminated because it is the "nastiest fuel known to man."
Canada's letter to the EPA was written by Paul Robertson, the embassy's economics minister. Mr. Robertson did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
The EPA wants ships to use fuel with a sulphur content under 1,000 parts per million starting in 2015. The average in the Canadian lake fleet is currently 17,000 ppm. As well, starting in 2016, new engines on boats will have to have improved emission controls.
Both Canada and the United States have agreed to apply the EPA proposals on ocean-going vessels within 200 nautical miles of most parts of their non-Arctic coasts, but Canada isn't extending the same measures to domestic freighters on the lakes.
Although the rules wouldn't apply to freighters on the Canadian side of the lakes, domestic vessels will have to comply anyway because shipping lanes frequently criss-cross the border on the waterway.
The EPA said in a background paper that ship-diesel exhaust, which can travel hundreds of kilometres from shorelines, is a likely human carcinogen, and contributes to heart and lung disease, particularly for children and the elderly. It says the new controls, including those on ocean vessels, will prevent 8,300 premature deaths annually, although it didn't give specific figures for the Great Lakes region.
The embassy didn't dispute the EPA's health findings, but expressed concerns about the economic impact of the measures.
Low-sulphur fuel costs 70 per cent to 250 per cent more than what is now being used, and the letter warned that the extra costs might lead to some freight now moved by ship to be switched to rail cars or trucks, with the environmental drawback of increased greenhouse-gas emissions.
The Canadian Shipowners Association has also written to the EPA, proposing that the industry be given until 2020 to comply with the proposals. The letter said scrubbers are a possible solution, but are still under development.
Association president Bruce Bowie defended lake freighters, saying they are the "greenest" type of transportation because they are a highly fuel-efficient way of moving bulk cargo. He predicted the EPA's move could lead to more road congestion.
"If they go ahead as it is now, a lot of our ships will have to be taken out of business and somebody is going to have to build more roads to accommodate it," he said.