Smoke from Charleston's cruise ships is a cause of concern
CHARLESTON - Black smoke trails from the Carnival Fantasy as the crew fires its diesels to set out of Charleston Harbor. The smoke and its stink are a focus of neighborhood and environmentalist concerns about pollution from cruise ships.
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But air pollution from the ships is being regulated and the regulations are tightening. The Fantasy's six engines don't burn the infamous Bunker C fuel that has been described as little more than heavily polluting sludge. They burn a higher grade of the same sort of fuel and, starting in 2012, will be forced to burn even higher grades near ports to clean up sulfur emissions.
The Fantasy is the main ship among nearly 70 ships that are expected to call by the end of the year on the port of Charleston, at the foot of Market Street downtown. Plans are for that number to increase to 90 next year, and about 100 once the State Ports Authority's planned terminal is built just upstream.
Engine discharges aboard the Fantasy and other cruise ships docking here are handled more environmentally friendly than the little-treated sewage the ships discharge out at sea. So is a gangway full of garbage and other solid waste.
But the fuels still are dirtier than fuels used on land. Other ports have established stricter emission controls and even plug-in capability for shore power. When the Fantasy comes into Charleston, it off-loads a ton of waste to be recycled. It also off-loads a few trash bins full of garbage for the landfills and sometimes as much as a truckload of oil removed from bilge water before that water is discharged.
Tom Dow, Carnivals Corp.'s public relations vice president, said the cruise line takes its environmental responsibilities seriously because, at the end of the day, community acceptance is good business. But the company's product is recreation experiences.
"Our cargo is human. We're not on-loading containers," he said. "Those passengers are on vacation; they understand recycling and conservation, but they want to enjoy themselves. You're going to have your impact, but you can minimize it."
A cruise ship is virtually a floating hotel. The Fantasy is a towering 14 decks, three football fields long. The ship uses 6 megawatts of electricity -- roughly enough to power 6,000 homes.
The ship generates that power with diesel engines. At sea, the ship typically runs four of its engines. In port, it keeps one running constantly to power the electricity needs. Neighbors in at least the East Bay and Ansonborough neighborhoods say they smell the fumes when the ships come in.
Under way, with some 3,000 passengers and crew aboard, the Fantasy burns more than 10,000 gallons of fuel per day.
In the overall picture of air pollution from land vehicles and ships in the Charleston area, cruise ships don't blow much smoke. But health concerns are real. The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 8,300 lives per year could be saved in the United States and Canada with the new, tighter sulfur emission regulations on cruise ships.
Dana Beach, head of the Coastal Conservation League, says a main air pollution concern about cruise ships is the combination of two things: the constant running of one engine in port and the location of the ships. The ships dock near the end of Market Street and pour exhaust over the adjacent historic residential neighborhoods and the bustling market district. Air pollution from container ships is also a problem, but they dock farther from residential areas, he said.
In 2006, a resident committee appointed by Mayor Joe Riley issued a set of recommendations for handling cruise ships. Among other largely ignored suggestions, the committee called for a serious look at mandating that the ships hook up to shoreside electrical and sewage utilities, to help minimize pollution. Carnival and Ports Authority officials say it's not really cost-effective.
Installing an electric substation and other equipment to service a cruise ship would cost $7 million to $10 million per berth "as a rule of thumb," and an additional $1 million to equip the ship, said Byron Miller, Ports Authority public relations director. Getting the electrical current standardized between the two is technical and complicated. With only one engine operating, the environmental gain is minimal, particularly with the tighter emission controls on the way.
Carnival Corp. posted $1.3 billion net earnings among its 98 ships for the 2010 summer season alone, according to the company's report.
The Ports Authority charges nearly $8,000 per day to berth a ship the size of the Fantasy, as well as fees for fresh water, security and the harbor master. Per-passenger fees are charged either when a ship arrives or leaves the port, or merely makes a port of call. For a ship that size, those fees can total more than $40,000. Car parking is a minimum of $15 per day, based on size of the vehicle.
Cruise ship revenue currently makes up 8 percent of the state port's income.
The Port of San Francisco just became the first California port to provide shoreside power to cruise ships. Seattle and Vancouver also provide it. "The technology is seen as a cost-efficient alternative to using expensive distillate fuel in ports, with the advantage of eliminating noise and pollution," reported Portworld, an industry news source, announcing the San Francisco news.
Shreds, crushes, shrink-wraps
Unlike some other cruise ships, the Fantasy doesn't incinerate its garbage. It's part of an agreement Carnival worked out with federal regulators that leaves Dow, the company's PR officer, shaking his head.
Below decks, in a compartment along the warren of gangways and portals that is the working hub of the ship, he sweeps his hand toward a device that looks like a floor-to- ceiling-size generator. It's a plasma arc incinerator -- a high-tech, high-intensity, smokeless waste treatment device that uses electric charges to combust garbage into gas and not much of any solid waste.
Carnival agreed to make the Fantasy a trial ship for the new technology, which ideally would keep the ship from having to incinerate paper, cardboard, plastics, textiles, wood or food as it sailed. As part of the trial, the Fantasy no longer incinerates, Dow said. But it doesn't plasma arc incinerate either.
The garbage has to be shredded to slivers before it can be fed to the device, and then it's fed through a pipe not as big as a household sewer line. The shredder can't keep up with the demand, Dow said. The feed pipe continually clogs. On the day of a recent tour of the works, the device was shut down waiting for new parts from the manufacturer.
Meanwhile, the crew shreds, crushes, compacts and shrink-wraps the garbage and recyclables to be stashed away and off-loaded at port.
The heart of the working decks of the Fantasy is a gangway that company honchos like to call "I-95." It buzzes with crew scurrying between assignments and forklifts hauling pallets. It looks for the world like an industrial warehouse and passes alcove after alcove of loaded provision pallets stacked to the ceiling.
Right off the gangway there's a modest compartment that's the guts of the recycling efforts. Along with handling the refuse from recycling drums, crew members sort through the cabin discards to pick out glass, paper, plastic, even "biohazard" -- leftover gauzes, needles and other medical supplies tossed away by passengers.
Glass gets crushed. Aluminum and plastic gets compacted. It all gets shrink-wrapped into bales to be off-loaded. The recycling drums incongruously are the same sort of plastic trash cans that sit outside homes from the garbage truck, and the smell is the same. Cans read, "Food only," "China only." Asked how much broken china the ship goes through in a cruise, Dow retorts, "As little as possible."
Outside the ship, the last two trash bins filled from the trip are still on the dock a few hours later. One of them is filled with discarded pool lounge chairs, among other items. The second bin has two-by-fours with nails, torn apart from loading pallets. International law doesn't prohibit ships from discharging garbage when out to sea. But Carnival doesn't do that, Dow and others said. Trash from the Fantasy occasionally gets off-loaded in Nassau. Otherwise, it all comes back to Charleston.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.