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Laws needed on ship pollution

South China Morning Post

Updated on Jun 19, 2011

Society has zero tolerance when one person threatens or takes the life of another, yet nothing is being done to prevent air pollution from visiting ocean-going ships. Unlike power stations and vehicles, the vessels are allowed to burn the dirtiest, cheapest, high-sulphur fuel – of a standard several times worse than is acceptable in most European or North American ports. Studies suggest that hundreds of people are probably dying each year as a result. For authorities to continue to turn a blind eye is to make a mockery of their pledge to make our air less toxic.

The oil, commonly known as bunker fuel, is the thick residue left in refineries after the lighter liquids have been removed. There is no cheaper or more highly polluting petroleum product. It is in clear evidence – pouring blackly from the funnels of container ships, ferries and tug boats. When it is burned, potentially dangerous chemicals are emitted that can cause breathing and skin disorders, heart disease and cancers.

It is an oddity of the government’s environmental policy that, while it has legislated for cleaner fuel for private cars, taxis and minibuses and has in place voluntary schemes for larger polluters, it is ignoring a source that may pose the biggest single threat to health.

Prefacing the risks with an element of uncertainty is necessary because of a lack of targeted research. An index developed by University of Hong Kong public health professor Anthony Hedley indicates air pollution kills between 1,000 and 1,200 people a year. Studies conducted after the government mandated low-sulphur petrol be used in road vehicles attributed about one-third of deaths from air pollution to shipping. To be aware of such risks, yet not take precautions through rules or legislation, is illogical.

Authorities elsewhere have not been so negligent. With bunker fuel having a sulphur content of between 3 and 4.5 per cent – thousands of times what Hong Kong insists on for vehicle diesel – ports have mandated that ships cannot dock unless they are burning higher-grade fuel. The International Maritime Organisation, the UN body that polices the world’s shipping, has ordered tighter standards for large ships using European and North American waters. Generally, that means 1 per cent or 1.5 per cent sulphur and, when in port, less than that – in the case of Europe, 0.1 per cent sulphur.

Some companies using Hong Kong’s container port at Kwai Chung are already being responsible. The Danish shipping firm Maersk Line has decided all its vessels will use low-sulphur fuel when at anchor and berthed. But volunteerism is not an option for the government with air pollution – the schemes under way, and the high sulphur levels beside roads and in Kwai Chung, prove that. Laws are the only way to deal with what has for too long been a neglected problem.

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