Global shipping companies have spent billions fitting vessels with “cheat devices” that will allow them to pollute water while still satisfying new emissions legislation, environmental groups have warned.
More than $12bn (£9.7bn) has been spent on the devices, known as open-loop scrubbers, which extract sulphur from the exhaust fumes of ships that run on heavy fuel oil.
This means the vessels meet standards demanded by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) that kick in on 1 January.
The sulphur emitted by the ships is processed by the scrubber, which in turn discharges as a liquid which contains pollutant properties which have been found to pose a risk to sea life.
The change could have a devastating effect on wildlife in British waters and around the world, experts have warned.
A total of 3,756 ships, both in operation and under order, have already had scrubbers installed according to DNV GL, the world’s largest ship classification company.
Only 65 of these vessels have had closed-loop scrubbers installed only, a version of the device that does not discharge into the sea and stores the extracted sulphur in tanks before discharging it at a safe disposal facility in a port.
The Exhaust Gas Cleaning System Association has estimated that 4,000 ships will be operating with scrubbers by the time the legislation is enforced, up from fewer than a hundred in 2013.
The ships that have been quickest to adopt the devices are the larger vessels, such as bulk carriers, container ships and oil tankers, which have the biggest engines and have historically been the worst polluters.
For every ton of fuel burned, ships using open-loop scrubbers emit approximately 45 tons of warm, acidic, contaminated washwater containing carcinogens including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a non-profit organisation that provides scientific analysis to environmental regulators.
Increasing volumes of wastewater will create toxic sediment around ports and could have a devastating effect on the wildlife in British waters, according to Lucy Gilliam, a campaigner for Transport and Environment, a Brussels-based NGO.
“In the North Sea and some parts of the Channel, the water quality has already been heavily degraded,” she said. “Wildlife in these areas is likely to be far more vulnerable to the effects of having ships discharging huge volumes of acidic, polluted, warm water from scrubbers. As things stand, far too few parameters are covered by the existing IMO criteria for permitted discharge from scrubbers.”
She added: “Scrubbers are effectively cheat devices in that they satisfy environmental legislation, while allowing ships to continue to pollute. They are legal according to IMO rules, which allows shipping companies to wash their hands of their environmental responsibilities.”
Heavy metal pollution has been connected to damage to the central nervous system in humans and animals while PAHs have been blamed for skin, lung, bladder, liver, and stomach cancers.
The increasing acidification of the world’s waters is killing coral reefs, something scientific studies have warned threatens entire oceanic food chains.
Bryan Comer, a senior researcher at ICCT, said the use of scrubbers by cruise ships is a particular concern.
The ICCT has estimated that cruise ships with scrubbers will consume around 4 million tons of heavy fuel oil in 2020 and will discharge 180 million tons of contaminated scrubber washwater overboard.
“About half of the world’s roughly 500 cruise ships have or will soon have scrubbers installed,” said Mr Comer. “Cruise ships operate in some of the most beautiful and pristine areas on the planet, making this all the more concerning.”
Scrubbers generally cost between £1.6m and £8.1m depending on the vessel – and the adoption of this technology has cost billions of dollars over recent years, according to Mr Comer.
“If you are conservative and say that ships are spending about $3m (£2.4m) per ship to instal scrubbers, at 4,000 ships that’s $12bn (£9.7bn) dollars of investment in a technology that enables ships to use the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel – heavy fuel oil.
“Worse, scrubbers increase fuel consumption by about 2 per cent, increasing carbon dioxide emissions.
“Imagine how far $12bn could have gone if it was applied towards developing and deploying technologies for zero-emission vessels.”
Under IMO regulations, ships are permitted to use open-loop scrubbers as what they call “equivalents”. These are defined as: “Any fitting, material, appliance or apparatus to be fitted in a ship or other procedures, alternative fuel oils, or compliance methods used as an alternative to that required.”
In statement to The Independent, the IMO said: “The intention behind that idea of equivalents is to allow for innovation.”
Though IMO member states have approved the use of open-loop scrubbers to meet the incoming sulphur cap, some regional ports have introduced rules to prevent their use.
In January, the UAE’s Port of Fujairah announced a ban on the use of open-loop scrubbers in its waters.
In July, China said it would extend a ban scrubber discharges to cover all coastal regions within 12 nautical miles from China’s territorial sea and regions near the southern island province of Hainan.
In May, EU member states made a submission to the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee calling for it to develop a set of “harmonised rules” on the areas and conditions under which scrubbers can discharge.
In response, the committee appointed a team to assess the available evidence relating to the environmental impact of discharges from scrubbers. This team is due to present its findings in February 2020.
In a statement issued to The Independent, the IMO said it had already “adopted strict criteria for discharge of washwater from exhaust gas cleaning systems”.
It added that it is “undertaking a review of the 2015 guidelines on exhaust gas cleaning systems. The guidelines include, among other things, washwater discharge standards.”
A previous version of this article reported that sulphur emitted by the ships is “re-routed” from the exhaust and expelled into the sea. We have amended the article to make clear that the scrubber processes the sulphur, which creates a liquid by-product that contains a number of pollutants which has been found to have a damaging effect on sea-life. We also reported that DNV.GL had found that 23 out of 3,756 ships have had closed-loop scrubbers installed. In fact, 65 vessels have closed-loop scrubbers only; a further 677 have a hybrid installation, which is switchable between an open and closed loop model.
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