As the Port of Houston preps for expansion, air quality initiatives take center stage
By Rod Evans
All signs point to the Houston Ship Channel becoming an even busier waterway in 2015 thanks to the ongoing project to expand the Panama Canal from a maximum depth of 40 to 45 feet that will allow it to accommodate larger vessels.
Major dredging projects in the Houston Ship Channel, specifically at the Barbours Cut and Bayport Terminals to deepen those vital tributary channels from 40 to 45 feet, are planned to allow the larger vessels passing through the canal to call on the Ship Channel and the Port of Houston (POH). These larger vessels will be capable of transporting more cargo, resulting in an increase in cargo traffic through the POH, the nation’s second busiest port.
But while the increase in cargo traffic is expected to provide an economic boost to the port region, it has also raised concerns among residents and environmental groups regarding the impact that the influx of more vessels could have on the air quality in the region. Because the majority of the ships, as well as many of the massive cranes that load and off-load their cargo—the cranes at the Barbours Cut and Bayport Terminals are electric-powered—along with the trucks and trains that carry the cargo to its ultimate destination, burn diesel fuel which, thanks to its high sulfur content, is a known carcinogen, many area residents worry that the increased vessel activity will result in a worsening of air quality.
“The Port of Houston believes in a sustainable business approach and we believe that industry does as well,” said Charlie Jenkins, the Port of Houston’s managing director of strategic planning. “We put a big focus on showing leadership by making big investments in clean air technology, such as the retrofitting of engines, using the best fuels we can and using electricity when we can to effectively balance environmental needs and initiatives and economics and job creation.”
But the issue of air quality in the port region is a complicated matter. While the Houston Ship Channel is a 52-mile corridor populated by private and publicly owned facilities, the 25-mile long POH has control over a relatively small portion of the complex, with just eight of the 150 terminals along the channel falling under its control.
“We don’t have jurisdiction over the whole channel and we don’t own any of the ships that call on the port and very few of the trucks that operate in it,” Jill Burris, director of environmental affairs for the POH, said.
Grass roots environmental groups, led by Air Alliance Houston (AAH) and the newly formed Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC) are asking the POH to take more of a leadership role in reducing diesel pollution from trucks, trains, ships and other transport-related equipment. These groups are concerned that the increase in ship traffic will trigger an uptick in air quality related health problems for citizens who live in portside communities. The HPCC recently completed an admittedly unscientific study that indicates incidences of respiratory diseases like asthma, cancer and other illnesses linked to particulate matter found in airborne pollution is much higher than state averages among port region residents. The groups are asking that more detailed studies be conducted on the possible impact of increased port traffic.
“Air quality in Houston is vastly improved from the 1980s, when Houston had air pollution issues reaching crisis levels,” said Adrian Kelley, executive director of AAH. “Great work has been done as a city on that problem. But the area is not in compliance with federal standards for ozone and there’s debate over whether we’re in compliance with particulate standards. Our contention is that we do meet federal particulate standards in several areas around the Port of Houston and we’re concerned that there has not been a broad urban impact study done on this expansion project as a whole.”
The POH says more than 8,000 vessels call on the port annually, in addition to 200,000 barge calls, and it’s the emissions produced by these vessels that are of primary concern. While the channel will see an increase in cargo traffic once the canal expansion is completed, POH Clean Air Strategist Lilly Wells says emissions will likely decrease once the larger vessels begin calling on the port.
“Because the ships will be larger, we’ll actually have fewer ships moving in and out of the port,” Wells said, “and these ships will be newer, which means they will have less emissions.”
Wells points to an effort underway worldwide to reduce emissions, primarily the levels of sulfur, produced by ocean going vessels that is leading to the use of cleaner burning engines and lower sulfur fuels.
One of the other major sources of port-related pollution is the hundreds of vehicles that transport cargo from ships to destinations in and around the port, commonly called drayage trucks. The trucks are primarily owned by small businesses, and because many of them are older vehicles, they often emit tons of particulate matter into the air as they sit idling while they wait to take on cargo.
Jenkins says the POH has several initiatives in place to address this problem, including road infrastructure projects to ease congestion around the port and neighboring communities, making improvements to port gates that reduces the amount of time that trucks have to wait to gain entry to the port and helping truck owners to access programs designed to modernize or replace older polluting trucks.
“We have a new driver efficiency app for smart phones for all trucks coming into or out of our container terminals. The more efficient the trucks are, the less miles they drive and the less time they sit there waiting and idling,” Jenkins said. “We are working with local municipalities and TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) on roadway infrastructure improvements and we’ve also made significant improvements to the gates at Barbours Cut and Bayport to reduce truck queuing time that has resulted in turn time being reduced to close to 30 minutes.”
Burris says getting the private drayage truck owners to replace or retrofit their aging vehicles with cleaner burning engines is a difficult proposition, but one the POH is actively pursuing. Members of the HPCC that recently toured the Port of Los Angeles learned that officials there have banned older trucks from working in the port area, something they believe the POH should institute. But Burris says the Port of Los Angeles owns and operates the entire harbor area, while the POH does not.
“As much as we’d like to lay down edicts, lots of people doing business in the port are small business owners that own a single truck and we don’t want to put people out of business. At the same time, we don’t want to let people do whatever they want, so it’s a tricky balance. But we do work to provide incentives and help the owners find strategic funding and grants designed to encourage them to upgrade their trucks or retrofit them with conversions for alternate fuels,” Burris said.
Meanwhile, the POH is working to improve communication between the organization and port region citizens through better community engagement outlets such as the newly created Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council.
“We want to hear the issues that the communities have related to air quality and establish an open door policy to provide information to them that they can share in their community,” said Dana Blume, environmental affairs program coordinator for the POH, “and we can take what we’re hearing in the community and work together to determine what the next steps should be.”