Cruise Ships Find Rough Waters in Alaska Courtroom

Judge rejects state's attempt to weaken air pollution controls.

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In a victory for cleaner air, a federal judge in Alaska threw out a lawsuit last week that the state of Alaska filed against the State Department and the EPA in an attempt to prevent the operation of new regulations to control pollution from ships.

Many communities along our coasts fail to meet federal air quality standards for sulfur oxides and particulate matter—pollutants that cause cardiovascular disease and lung cancer and are the leading cause of asthma in young children. Major contributors to this pollution are the large ocean-going ships that travel our nation’s waters and enter our ports, yet local governments are powerless to control this international source of pollution.

To remedy this problem, the federal government, in cooperation with other nations at the International Maritime Organization, agreed to establish an emissions control area, or ECA, in U.S. waters in which all ships regardless of their nationality, would be required to use low-sulfur fuel. This new fuel requirement will reduce particulate emission by 85 percent and sulfur emissions by nearly 95 percent—a significant benefit for the health of coastal communities.

Despite these clear benefits, Alaska sued the federal government hoping to be exempted from the low-sulfur fuel requirement in order to spare the cruise and shipping industries the expense of using cleaner fuel. Earthjustice intervened in the suit, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, and Natural Resources Defense Council, to defend the more stringent pollution controls applicable in the ECA.

Judge Gleason dismissed the suit, holding that the State Department and the EPA proposed, accepted, and implemented the emissions control area as Congress had intended when it established the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships. Noting the potential for international embarrassment if the court were to prevent the United States from honoring its international commitments, Judge Gleason declined to weigh in on the appropriateness of the agencies’ decision to include Alaska in the emissions control area.

Given the significant reductions in pollution that the ECA standards will accomplish and the potential for the whole ECA to unravel if Alaska’s arguments for exemption were ratified, this decision marks an important win for the health of coastal communities.

Sarah has a deep connection with international environmental law after living and working with communities in Nepal, Guatemala and South Africa. She works in the International program from the San Francisco, CA office.

Opened in 1978, our Alaska regional office works to safeguard public lands, waters, and wildlife from destructive oil and gas drilling, mining, and logging, and to protect the region's marine and coastal ecosystems.