Ports officials want to unplug shore power discussion for new cruise terminal

Carnival Cruise Lines plans to install air-pollution scrubbers on its Charleston-based Fantasy in the fall. The ship is not equipped for shore power.

Buried on page 23 of the 129-page “Tourism Management Plan” approved this week by Charleston City Council is a one-sentence declaration that city and State Ports Authority officials “continue the dialogue on the installation of shore power” for cruise ships at Union Pier.

But as far as SPA Chief Executive Jim Newsome is concerned, that discussion is over before it even begins.

“Shore power has really been rendered as a last-generation solution at most major ports,” Newsome told City Council on Tuesday, before its members voted to adopt the tourism plan — with the shore power sentence intact.

Newsome said ultra-low sulfur fuel — mandatory for ships in and visiting the United States — combined with “scrubbers” installed in cruise ships’ smokestacks to help reduce emissions and trap soot have made the air quality improvements touted by shore power obsolete.

Newsome has estimated it would cost about $20 million to build shore power into a new cruise terminal planned at the north end of Union Pier. That’s nearly four times the amount a contractor hired by the SPA said it would cost — $5.3 million — to provide shore power at a new cruise terminal.

“I don’t think you’ll see any shore power installations” at U.S. cruise ship ports, Newsome told council.

All of which riles environmentalists who want the Port of Charleston to install shore power that Carnival’s ships can plug into so they won’t have to idle their engines while in port.

“Shore power is a proven way to reduce air pollution from ships, and would deliver more reductions for Charleston than Carnival’s scrubber proposal,” Katie Zimmerman, director of the Coastal Conservation League’s air, water and public health program, said in an email. “The best combination would be shore power and scrubbers.”

Blan Holman, a Charleston-based lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said: “There is no doubt there would be a reduction in pollution downtown if you use shore power.”

Carnival Cruise Lines plans to install scrubbers on the Fantasy — the cruise ship that calls Charleston home — sometime this fall. The Ecstasy cruise ship, which will replace the Fantasy in February, already has scrubbers. Neither ship is equipped for shore power.

Limited outdoor air testing at Union Pier shows there have been no emissions above federal guidelines, even when a cruise ship is in port.

The testing, which began Feb. 25, shows the highest 24-hour average reading for nitrogen dioxide has been 31.21 parts per billion, well below the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level of 100 parts per billion for outdoor air. Sulfur dioxide levels at Union Pier have hit a high of 5.4 parts per billion, lower than the 15 parts per billion maximum allowed.

A part per billion is a way to measure tiny quantities and is roughly equivalent to a pinch of salt in 10 tons of potato chips.

Particulate matter — including acids such as nitrates and sulfates, organic chemicals, metals and soil or dust particles — also are well below the federal government’s maximum standards.

“They are very positive,” Newsome said of the test results. “Nowhere close on any area of pollutant to any national or state standard. There’s no real correlation between a cruise ship day and a noncruise ship day as far as air quality.”

The SPA is posting the air test results on its website at scspa.com/About/Environment/air.asp.

The numbers, although limited to just more than one month’s data, appear to back up Newsome’s contention that air quality isn’t an issue at Union Pier and that shore power isn’t needed.

Newsome has bristled in the past at even the thought of discussing shore power.

For example, emails obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center through the Freedom of Information Act — and shared with The Post and Courier — show Newsome discouraged a Carnival executive’s plans from talking about shore power at the National Association of Maritime Organizations’ annual meeting last year.

After receiving a request to speak to the group, Thomas Dow, Carnival’s vice president of public affairs, sent an email to Newsome seeking his input.

“Any presentation that leads with shore power being the leading solution will be used against us and is not really reflective of the current situation,” Newsome replied to Dow in an email.

Four days later, Dow told Newsome in another email that he and the Cruise Lines International Association would decline to speak at the conference “because of scheduling conflicts and short notice.”

When City Council approved a resolution last year endorsing shore power — if needed — for a new cruise terminal, Newsome said it would be considered, but the “fuel standard now in place on the Carnival Fantasy is superior to shore power in terms of sulfur dioxide reduction.”

Then, Newsome added: “There are a lot of technical challenges (to shore power), There are a lot of cost over-runs. There have been significant public subsidies.”

City Council hasn’t pushed the shore power issue since then, except for its one-sentence mention in the tourism plan.

Holman said that despite opposition from Newsome and the SPA, shore power discussions are far from over.

The SPA’s plans to build a new, modernized cruise terminal at Union Pier will require a federal environmental permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. The law center and other environmental groups say they will use the permitting process as an opportunity to push for shore power requirements.

“The port has definitely made up its mind,” Holman said. “But it seems like the discussions will continue.”

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_