Shipping companies that haul iron ore, coal and other freight on the Great Lakes have enlisted support from leading congressional Democrats to ward off air pollution regulations they say would be a financial burden.

A group representing the 55 U.S.-flagged vessels that operate on the lakes is hoping for relief from a House-Senate conference committee expected to meet this week in Washington, D.C., to negotiate a compromise on a natural resources spending bill.

Alaska’s governor and Congressional Delegation unanimously oppose the regulations, which would drive up the cost of living for 90 percent of Alaskans and add another $100 million to the cost of operating cruise ships in the state.

The Lake Carriers’ Association was seeking at least a partial exemption from rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency that would require large vessels operating within 200 miles of a U.S. coast to use cleaner – and costlier – fuel and improve engine technology.

The rules are designed to reduce emissions of airborne contaminants blamed for smog, acid rain, respiratory ailments and possibly cancer. Large ships are leading producers of nitrogen and sulfur oxides and tiny contaminated particles that foul the air near ports and coastlines and hundreds of miles inland, EPA says.

“This is one of the most significant public health protection standards that the EPA has set in recent years,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. “We hope it won’t be torpedoed by special interest politics.”

But the industry group said the regulations would ground 13 aging steamships while forcing 13 others to use fuel 70 percent more expensive than the present blend. The added cost to Great Lakes shippers – about $210 million – would be passed to their customers, said Jim Weakley, president of the shipping association.

“It would be catastrophic,” he said. “If 50 percent of our carrying capacity is either taken out or at risk, we can’t do our job.”

O’Donnell said influential Democrats from the Midwest – including House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis. – were pushing an amendment to the natural resources bill that would exempt the 13 steamships from the requirements while enabling others to seek a hardship waiver from the EPA. Obey’s office declined comment.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, convened a recent meeting of lawmakers and EPA staffers on the issue. Rep. Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican who attended, said she hoped for a compromise.

The rules would damage not only shippers, but Great Lakes industries that rely on them – including steel and auto manufacturers already battered by the economic downturn and foreign competition, Miller said.

“I don’t think there’s such a critical air problem in the Great Lakes region that we should risk jobs and putting ships out of business,” she said.

Some officials in Alaska say the rules could deter visits to their ports by cruise ships, which are important to the state economy.

As written, they would require ships by 2012 to burn fuel with sulfur content not exceeding 1 percent, or 10,000 parts per million. In 2015, the limit would drop to 1,000 parts per million.

Great Lakes steamships are powered by a type of marine fuel that carries about 30,000 parts per million of sulfur.

“It’s among the filthiest fuel known to mankind – literally the sludge at the bottom of the barrel after the refining process,” O’Donnell said.

The 13 steamships that would be grounded were mostly built in the 1950s and can’t be switched to low-sulfur fuel without risking explosions, Weakley said.

Mothballing them would be self-defeating because much of the cargo would be switched to trucks or trains, which emit more pollution than ships, said Phil Linsalata, spokesman for Warner Petroleum, a marine fuel company in Clare, Mich.

The EPA rule would apply within 200 miles of a U.S. coast. Weakley said that unfairly singles out Great Lakes vessels because they’re always within that zone, unlike ocean freighters.

Clean-air and health advocates have urged the EPA to stand by its proposed rules, scheduled for final approval in December.

“Air pollution is not confined to state boundaries,” Arthur Marin, director of a group representing Northeastern state air quality agencies, said in a letter to Congress. “Through long-range transport in the atmosphere, pollutants emitted in domestic waters, such as the Great Lakes, affect air quality in the Northeast.”

EPA estimates the regulations would prevent up to 33,000 premature deaths over the next two decades and hundreds of billions in medical costs.

In a statement, the agency confirmed having met with Oberstar and other lawmakers.

“EPA prides itself on listening to public comments and taking them into account before issuing final regulations,” it said.

Source: The Associated Press

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