The region's dirtiest exhaust pipes, spewing tons of toxic diesel fumes into Seattle's air, could be forced to clean up under a new federal initiative targeting freighters, cruise ships and oil tankers.

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The region’s dirtiest exhaust pipes, spewing tons of toxic diesel fumes into Seattle’s air, could be forced to clean up under a new federal initiative targeting freighters, cruise ships and oil tankers.

The United States and Canada together are asking an international shipping regulator to require large oceangoing ships entering U.S. and Canadian waters to burn much cleaner fuel.

The initiative tackles one of the last lightly regulated sources of toxic diesel pollution in the country. It was welcomed Monday by shippers, ports and environmentalists as a way of cutting ship pollution without putting some ports at a disadvantage.

“This will provide significant environmental and public-health benefits here in the Puget Sound region,” said Dennis McLerran, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which enforces federal air-pollution laws in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties.

Diesel pollution from oceangoing ships has become an increasing concern for McLerran as ship traffic at local ports increases. Unlike most diesel-powered vehicles, these ships have largely escaped regulation, partly because most are registered in other countries. As a result, large freighters often burn thick, syrupy oil filled with sulfur, a major contributor to toxic diesel soot. The fuel in these ships averages 27,000 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By comparison, diesel trucks must use fuel with only 15 ppm.

Due in part to this dirty fuel, neighborhoods around ports had the most toxic air in Washington state, according to a 2006 Seattle Times analysis.

Under the new U.S. and Canadian plan, oceangoing ships would have to cut sulfur levels in the fuel to 10,000 ppm in 2010 and 1,000 ppm in 2015, or install pollution-control equipment that would cut pollution an equal amount. Ships also would have to better control pollution from nitrogen oxides starting in 2016.

The rules would apply inside a 230-mile buffer zone around the two countries.

The changes could prevent 8,300 premature deaths in the U.S. and Canada every year, the EPA says. Diesel pollution is linked to cancer, asthma, and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

The proposal goes before the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations agency that oversees international shipping regulations.

The plan is very likely to be accepted by the IMO, since shippers, ports and environmentalists endorse it, said T.L. Garrett, of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents shippers that use West Coast ports.

“We think it’s the right way to do it, to have an international regulatory scheme that creates a level playing field for all parties,” Garrett said.

The new regulations would cost shippers an additional $3.2 billion in 2020, according to the EPA.

By covering all North America, the approach addresses concerns that one port could lose business to other ports if it creates more-stringent environmental regulations, said Seattle Port Commissioner John Creighton.

The Port Commission hasn’t taken a position on the new EPA proposal. But last year it unanimously supported changes to the international treaty that paved the way for the new plan.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com