The cruise industry opposes international air-quality regulations that will come into effect in North America in August, write local environmental advocates Fred Felleman and Marcie Keever. They urge the industry and Congress to resist efforts to weaken the new rules.

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ONE hundred years after the most infamous maritime disaster in history, the cruise industry continues to make titanic mistakes that threaten public health and the environment. We are not referring to the grounding of the Costa Concordia in Italy or the failure of the Star Princess to aid Panamanian fishermen. The cruise industry is opposing long-awaited international air-quality regulations that will come into effect in North America in August.

Bunker fuel is a residual fuel left over from the refining of diesel, jet fuel and gasoline used in huge ship engines. While many people think diesel truck fumes are disgusting, the fact is they are hundreds of times cleaner than what is spewed from the stacks of ships currently calling on our ports.

Bunker fuel is laden with high levels of sulfur, ash and heavy metals that, when burned, produces tiny, harmful particles that have been linked to asthma, lung-growth abnormalities in children and mortality from lung cancer, strokes and heart attacks.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency petitioned the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization to reduce air pollution from ships burning bunker fuel within 200 nautical miles of North America’s shores in what is called the North American Emission Control Area.

The use of bunker fuel is so destructive that the Environmental Protection Agency estimates the petition, which requires the use of fuels with no greater than 1 percent sulfur, will prevent 32,000 premature deaths across the U.S. and save tens of billions of dollars in health costs by 2030.

Bunker emissions contribute to ocean acidification that is plaguing our local shellfish industry, not to mention the plankton base of the marine food web. The large amount of soot associated with these emissions can increase the melt rate of ice and snow. This is a growing concern as cruise ships are among the first to be exploiting the high Arctic region for tourism as the polar ice cap recedes.

The maritime industry has been making numerous efforts to reduce its operating costs by exploring a variety of fuel-conservation efforts, from slippery hull coatings to slow steaming and better voyage planning. The Cruise Line International Association has asserted that, despite its members’ prosperity, the North American Emissions Control Area will require costly measures that will force it to abandon the U.S. market unless it receives special accommodations called sulfur averaging. This would allow cruise ships to use dirtier bunker fuel in less-populated areas like Hawaii and Alaska in exchange for using cleaner fuels while at berth.

The cruise companies recently succeeded in getting a rider attached to the House Interior Appropriations bill that would allow ships to continue to use dirtier bunker fuel rather than fully comply with the Emissions Control Area designation.

The subject of sulfur averaging is sure to be a hot topic at Thursday’s “Preparing for the ECA” conference in Tacoma.

We are fortunate to have the former head of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, Dennis McLerran, as administrator of the EPA’s Region 10 office in Seattle. McLerran continues to champion the cause of clean air. Let’s make sure Congress and the cruise industry do not undermine his efforts to have the Emissions Control Area apply across the entire shipping sector in order to protect human and environmental health.

Fred Felleman, left, is a Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. Marcie Keever is the Oceans and Vessels project director for Friends of the Earth.