Port plans more fuel switches

State Ports Authority tenants that run diesel equipment on SPA property, like this mobile crane (left) at the Wando-Welch Terminal, will start using cleaner burning fuel this fall. The SPA has already made the switch for its equipment.

Six months after deciding to run its dockside equipment with a cleaner- burning fuel, the State Ports Authority said Wednesday that all buses, cranes and other equipment operated by its tenants also will make the switch.

All privately operated "off-road" equipment at the SPA's five local shipping terminals will run on the slightly more expensive grade of ultra-low-sulfur diesel by September.

The shift is expected to help cut emission levels from diesel-burning machinery by about 10 percent, according to port officials.

An environmental watchdog group said the impact on local air quality will be relatively small.

The voluntary change comes two years before a federal deadline to use the cleaner fuel, which costs between a penny and 5 cents more per gallon than conventional diesel.

The agreement does not cover over-the-road tractor-trailers, which already run on the cleaner fuel, or ocean-going vessels. The South Carolina Public Railways, which serves the port, also uses ultra-low-sulfur diesel.

The SPA burns about 1 million gallons of diesel a year at its terminals, making it by far the biggest single user of diesel in off-road equipment at the Port of Charleston.

In addition, the agency's seven major tenants buy about 825,000 gallons of diesel a year combined.

The companies have a storage capacity of about 25,000 gallons in 14 storage tanks at SPA terminals.

Ryan Chandler, vice president of regional operations for Savannah-based Tico/Terminal Services, the biggest user of diesel at Charleston's docks after the SPA, said the move to use more environmentally friendly fuel is catching on across the maritime industry.

Terminal Services in Charleston provides longshoremen with more than 100 tractors and other equipment for moving containers within the terminals.

The company, which has operations at other ports, said Charleston is the first place where it is swapping fuels.

Chandler, who was in San Diego Wednesday, said the effects of pollution on the West Coast are clear.

"As I'm driving around California and seeing the haze in the air, it's easy to see what might be," he said.

The Coastal Conservation League, which is lobbying to improve air quality at the Port of Charleston, welcomed the decision, but stressed that more needs to be done.

Nancy Vinson, program manager with the Charleston-based group, said the measures "are a nice thing to do" two years before they're required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but yard handling equipment accounts for only about 10 percent of total port pollution.

Vinson said the move will improve air quality at the port by less than 1 percent.

"It's a good thing, but it's very small," she said.

Traditional low-sulfur diesel meets a standard of 500 parts per million, the standard measure of sulfur content in diesel.

The ultra-low sulfur fuel meets a standard of 15 parts per million. The EPA has mandated that all off-road equipment switch to the cleaner-burning fuel by July 2010.

Perry Rourk of Atlantic Container Services in Charleston, another of the SPA's tenants that agreed to the shift, said that for his company at least, the benefits will go beyond the terminal gates. His company uses diesel in generators that run refrigerated containers, which are hauled to and from the SPA's terminals.

"It's going to reduce the emissions over the road as well," Rourk said.