Focusing on Solutions at the North American Marine Environment Protection Association Conference

Last Thursday, I attended the North American Marine Environment Protection Association Conference in Deer Park, Texas, where largely industry professionals converged to discuss how industry can approach the regulatory changes they face, from a the 0.5% sulfur cap on fuels that is currently being rolled out to ballast water management to strategies for reducing emissions and dealing with greenhouse gases. As a nonprofit and community representative, I was warmly welcomed into the small conference. It is fair to say that this conference largely represented the viewpoints of industry, but many of the speakers alluded to pushing the envelope and going beyond compliance in terms of their approach to sustainability and marine protection.

I’ll say a just little bit about ballast water management. Basically, ballast water is used to stabilize a vessel during its journey as it loads and unloads cargo. However, the ballast water can transport all sorts of organisms from port to port. Upon discharge, these organisms can cause severe harm to ecosystems and public health. Ballast water management programs serve to treat the water before discharge to reduce the risk of harm to human health. One of the challenges, however, is that innovation is required in order to meet new ballast water management standards.

The idea of innovation for meeting these challenges was a common theme of the meeting, and regulation was seen as a driver of innovation. “Technology will not exist until the regulation exists,” said Rear Admiral Paul Thomas, of the US Coast Guard.

The 0.5% Sulfur Cap is a standard set by the International Maritime Organization that requires all bunker fuel to have a sulfur content of 0.5% or less by 2020. While there have been some concerns about the feasibility of adherence to this regulation, some expressed excitement over this paradigm shift with regards to new desulfurization technologies. Others looked toward newer fuel sources like liquified natural gas (LNG) to both abide by the sulfur cap regulation and to reduce emissions. Yet a couple speakers argued that LNG was not to be considered a panacea. Problems with LNG include something called methane slip, where the methane does not completely combust in the engine and escapes into the atmosphere. Because of methane’s role as a potent greenhouse gas (25x more potent than CO2), issues like methane slip need to be accounted for.

According to Kyle Brzymialkiewicz, emissions reductions are only made when the appropriate driving forces are in place, like regulation. Chris Wolfe of Environmental Defense Fund noted ocean going vessels are a significant contributor to NOx and particulate matter emissions – both of which can harm human health. Tools that can reduce these emissions include:

  • using less fuel through selecting more efficient vessels or through smart routing,
  • enforcing the use of ECA (emission control areas) compliant fuels
  • repowering auxiliary systems
  • using scrubbers, catalysts and filters on board the vessel
  • using shoreside electric power
  • using off-vessel stack bonnet technology to capture emissions

Environmental justice was mentioned during a few presentations as a reason why emissions reductions need to take place at the Houston Ship Channel. Vulnerable communities already contend with pollution hotspots, and that burden needs to be reduced.

What’s that Smell? It’s Houston!

Just another Monday in Houston? Last week we started the week out with calls from citizens concerned about an odor over Houston. People smelled the odor from downtown Houston, to the Heights, to Katy. They described it as like “burning rubber,” “mothballs,” or just “acrid.” (So many people were describing the smell, in fact, that we shared our “Odor Description Wheel” to help them.)

As usual, people immediately began speculating about the cause of the odor. We tend to follow these conversations on Twitter, one of the best spots for minute-to-minute updates on developing news stories. Early speculation blamed agricultural fires in Mexico and a gas leak at the Valero refinery. We called the Community Awareness and Emergency Response (CAER) Line to see if any messages had been posted.

By 11 AM LyondellBasell had posted a message to the CAER line about a release with possible odor at their chemical plant in Channelview. This, combined with an early conversation we had with the City of Houston, led us to believe Lyondell was most likely the cause. That turned out to be wrong, but in the minutes after an incident, who can tell?Memorial Villages Shelter in Place

Before noon, we heard from the Houston Fire Department that the smell was not harmful. This allayed our immediate concerns, and hopefully those of others as well. By the time the Fire Department spoke, precautionary shelter-in-place order had already been issued in Katy and Memorial Villages.

Sometimes we hear from a company almost immediately that there are “no offsite impacts to the community.” These initial assurances sometimes seem like knee-jerk responses based on little or no information. We feel very different when first responders assess a situation. We were also hearing from Harris County around this time that they had started monitoring as well.

Still, the incident left people to wonder: this one wasn’t harmful, but what happens during an event that is? Our answer is that better systems are needed to notify the public:

We also want people in Houston who were affected by the odor to file complaints with state and local regulators. People weren’t just complaining about a bad odor. There were numerous reports of health effects as well:


During and after the event, our main message to the public was the same as it often is during events like these: file a complaint!

With enough complaints and public pressure, we can hold companies accountable for these incidents. Complaints lead to investigations, and investigations lead to fines. Fines cost businesses money, and that creates an incentive to change behavior. Furthermore, oftentimes the only way the public will every learn about an event is if complaints are filed and followed through with. We have asked the city and the county numerous times since this incident what the conclusion was about who caused the odor. No one has been able to give us an answer. Investigations are “ongoing.”

We know that these things take time, and that memories are short. In another week or two, our local regulators may have an answer for us. In that time, will anybody still care, or will they have moved on to the next event?

Community Outreach in a new Environment

My favorite thing about working in community outreach is is being out in each unique
community and making a difference. Community outreach is conducted in each community based on their particular need and culture, therefore making each community experience unique. In my line of work I have to adapt to the community’s needs.  Each neighborhood is different and factors such as history, demographics, community economic worth, and other unique factor makes a different experience each time.

A community outreach coordinator must build trust in a community and between organizations. This is the key in getting a community organized and moving. When I visit a community for the first time, I sometimes hear that somebody else just like me came in years ago and did not follow through on what they promised. Who can blame community members when they mistrust strangers that claim to be there to help them? This is a legitimate concern based on a conclusion they have come to.

One thing I  do as a community outreach coordinator in order to gain a community’s trust is to get to know trenches, local community leaders, and residents. This can include organizing or volunteering at activities such as community clean ups, reading at the local school, volunteer at community/food fairs, and show a willingness to get down and dirty to help neighborhoods.

With threats of immigration enforcement increasing anxiety, deep involvement in a community is needed to overcome individuals being reclusive and scared of strangers. This is essential to success in organizing. A proven track record and sweat equality will really open your doors into a community.

Being a community outreach coordinator is a lot of work with long hours, but it is very rewarding. Seeing a transformation for the good in a community is a great feeling. Sometimes you can only plant the seeds of change and wait. But when change comes, knowing you were part of a movement that made change possible makes it all worthwhile.

HPCC visits Long Beach Container Terminal

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC) advocates for clean ports and goods movement for the residents of the Houston Ship Channel. Since its founding five years ago, the HPCC has taken periodic trips to the port of LA/Long Beach to learn from our colleagues there. That port–the largest in the United States–has taken such progressive steps as banning all diesel trucks and mandating the use of shore power for all visiting ships.

Most lawmakers in Texas will tell you that what works in California doesn’t work in Texas. This fact is so ingrainedIMG_2637 in our advocacy work that we try very hard not to begin arguments with, “Well in California they…” But it’s hard to ignore that our friends in the west are making some of the greenest, most forward thinking decisions about goods movement anywhere in the world. That’s why we took a delegation of portside community residents, elected officials, public health advocates, and industry representatives to visit the world’s first all-automated, all-electric port: the Long Beach Container Terminal.

At full capacity, the Long Beach Container Terminal will handle more than 3 million TEUs (twenty foot equivalency units) a year. The Long Beach Container Terminal itself is so large that it ranks above the port of Oakland, CA in size. Perhaps even more remarkable, the terminal is 100% electric and 100% automated. All of the cranes and trucks are electric, using a combination of batteries and grid power. Ships that visit the terminal are required to shut off their diesel engines and plug into the terminal grid for electric power. Because the terminal is automated, efficiency is improved. The Long Beach Terminal processes more containers than its peers and is able to send fewer containers away empty than most port terminals.

IMG_2654Automation is progress, but what about employees displaced by technological advances? Both truck drivers and longshoreman have powerful unions that employee countless hardworking Americans. What does automation mean for these jobs?

The CEO of the Long Beach Container Terminal admitted to us that their negotiations with the union had been difficult. Automating the terminal had indeed cost some of the traditional port jobs, including truck drivers and longshoreman. But the Port of Long Beach engaged with these unions early in the process. They provided educational and job training opportunities that allowed many displaced workers to take advantage of new employment options created by the new terminal. When all was said and done, employment in the region increased due to the additional economic activity made possible by the new port terminal.IMG_2658

After we visited the cleanest, greenest port in the world, the Healthy Port Communities Coalition was introduced to a new pollution control technology, the Advanced Maritime Emissions Control System, or AMECS.

The AMECS system has been described as a “vacuum cleaner the size of a house.” It was designed to address the problem of air pollution emitted by the stacks of marine vessels. Marine vessels use some of the dirtiest fuel available today, and although the worst fuel can no longer be used within 200 miles of the coast, marine vessels are still a massive source of air pollution.

TIMG_2661he AMECS system offers an elegant solution to this problem. A vacuum system is housed on a barge that can travel to meet ships that have arrived at the port. A device called a “stack bonnet” is placed over the smokestacks of the visiting ship. The house-sized vacuum cleaner is activated, sucking up all of the ship’s emissions. These air pollution emissions are filtered, and treated air is released to the atmosphere. With the AMECS system in place, a visiting ship can eliminate much of its air pollution emissions.

AMECS is just one example of a forward-thinking approach to pollution reduction that has been implemented in California. The Healthy Port Communities Coalition understands that California is not Texas. We aren’t asking the Lone Star State to follow California’s lead (although our departing Community Outreach Director might want us to). But we are asking Texas to pay attention to technological advances made by our direct competitors.

Texas enjoyed privileged status as a global leader in the energy economy of the 20th century. We are optimistic that Texas will find its way in the next century, but when we visit forward thinking ports like Long Beach, we can’t help but wonder if the state risks being left behind. The future of good movement is electric, and the future of electricity is renewable energy. Long Beach has already charted its path to a zero emissions future, and we hope that Port Houston can do the same.