A top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official stopped by the Port of Charleston's Wando Welch Terminal Tuesday morning to show how federal stimulus money can improve air quality.
Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, praised the State Ports Authority for working with neighboring communities in its effort to reduce harmful emissions and also the state Education Department for making school buses safer.
"Stimulus dollars are giving us the opportunity to demonstrate the value of these technologies," McCarthy said. "They allow the word to spread."
McCarthy stood in front of a shiny new school bus, one of four across the state that run on electricity until they reach 30 miles per hour and then burn less diesel fuel at higher speeds. Another 500 buses across the state will be retrofitted with cleaner engines.
"When we reduce particulate matter, when we take diesel out of the equation, we are saving human lives," McCarthy said.
The port agency secured $2 million in federal funding to repower 36 container handlers, two tug boats and a dredge boat and to retrofit 40 local trucks serving its terminals. The SPA and local private businesses provided an additional $1.6 million toward the project.
SPA spokesman Byron Miller said those efforts should reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 176 tons per year and particulate matter by nearly 10 tons per year. SPA chief executive Jim Newsome said the effort "reflects that clean air and growing the economy are not just the responsibility of one group."
Coastal Conservation League project manager Nancy Vinson worried that the SPA was "getting a lot of credit for addressing only a small part of the problem" and pointed to more aggressive cleanup measures implemented at the Port of Los Angeles. That includes banning all pre-1989 trucks from the port in 2008 and banning all pre-1993 trucks this year, plus any truck dating from 1994 to 2003 that has not been retrofitted.
Port of Los Angeles officials estimate a 70 percent emissions reduction in the first year alone.
At Tuesday's news conference Myra Reese, bureau chief of air quality for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, stressed the importance of small steps to improving public health. "The good news is our air is getting cleaner and cleaner," Reese said. "But we're quite a ways away from getting the job done."
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