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Matson ship with tug assitance in Port of Oakland

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Opinion: EPA Must Stop Unsafe and Costly California Maritime Mandate

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September 18, 2023

By Jennifer Carpenter

California’s maritime sector is essential to America’s role in the global economy and to the supply chain. Yet, a mandate from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has cast a shadow over the safety and efficiency of this sector, which will have far-reaching effects on the nation. 

While CARB’s intentions to bolster air quality are commendable, and California’s maritime industry has a proven track record of working to lower emissions, the hasty directive for tugboat operators to upgrade their engines with unapproved Diesel Particulate Filters (DPFs) within six months of DPFs becoming commercially available is fraught with safety risks, and the Coast Guard agrees.

DPFs, designed to mitigate diesel engine emissions, have become a focal point of CARB’s initiative to combat air pollution. CARB has adopted rules that will force tugboat and other vessel operators to install DPFs that are neither Coast Guard-approved nor certified by recognized classification societies such as the respected maritime safety and technical experts at the American Bureau of Shipping. 

The glaring absence of these crucial certifications, which could take until 2025, raises concerns about the reliability and safety of these systems in the marine environment. Despite this, the board is now asking the Environmental Protection Agency to grant a waiver under section 209(e) of the Clean Air Act to allow them to enforce their unsafe rule.

EPA and other federal leaders who can intervene should not take lightly the potential consequences of rushed installations of unproven DPFs.

When DPFs were first introduced, they were linked to truck fires, which led to California being sued multiple times. A company that worked with CARB to design DPFs had to cease operations because it built too many unsafe DPFs. In 2011, one fire caused by these unsafe DPFs caused $5.2 million in damages and destroyed 3,600 acres of forests and 100 structures.

While DPFs may have improved for trucks, none are approved for commercial marine use. According to a letter secured from a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Waterways Operators, the Coast Guard warned CARB of these safety concerns in 2021, stating clearly “this is a safety issue” and “practicality has to be considered.” 

Instead of following the advice of the federal agency with authority over waterways safety, CARB buried these concerns and did not mention them in its waiver request to EPA.

While a truck driver can run from a fire, a vessel crew’s only option may be to abandon ship, which is hazardous and always a last resort. Introducing new fire risks to heavily trafficked ports with combustible cargoes is also dangerous — imagine the threats to safety, the environment and property if a DPF ignites on a tugboat carrying 110,000 barrels of fuel.

In addition to jeopardizing mariner safety, CARB’s rule will further harm our nation’s supply chain. Putting commercial harbor craft out of business will congest the indispensable ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, affecting the entire country. These vessels are the lifeblood of America’s import and export markets, and any disruption can have far-reaching economic consequences.

Nationwide, barges and towing vessels move more than 665 million tons of cargo yearly, all while emitting 43 percent less greenhouse gasses than rail and 832 percent less than trucks. But CARB’s new rule forces vessel operators to choose between installing dangerous and uncertified DPFs or relocating their businesses to other states that value mariner safety.

The safety and economic impact of CARB’s rule does not have to be a federal issue alone. The California legislature is considering new legislation that requires CARB to wait until DPFs are independently verified to be safe and ready to install — standard practice for new equipment — rather than when CARB bureaucrats think the technology is ready.

California lawmakers and the EPA would be well advised to listen to the diverse stakeholders calling for safety at sea and exercise their oversight authority to protect lives. Mariners’ lives should be the first priority.

Jennifer Carpenter is the president and CEO of the American Waterways Operators. This article originally appeared on and is republished with permission.

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