News & Culture in Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Points Nearby
January 25, 2021
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News + Views

State Stalls on Brooklyn Air Pollution

By Lisa M. Collins
A battle over electricity rates leaves cruise ships to pollute Brooklyn air.
Photo by Joshua Kristal

A major source of pollution on the Red Hook waterfront is spewing carcinogens and haze-causing emissions into the South Brooklyn air while politicians and bureaucrats squabble over how much to charge Carnival Cruise Lines, whose passengers generate big bucks for New York City.

Every five days, a collection of the world’s largest and most luxurious cruise ships docks in Red Hook, at the end of Pioneer Street. Due to power needs of the massive vessels, which can hold 5,000 passengers, the ships can’t turn off their engines. So they idle. The ships burn the cheapest diesel fuel available, called bunker fuel. While docked, in idle, over the course of a day, the vessels belch as much air pollution as is produced by 12,400 cars, according to reports from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere.

While docked last year, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the vessels released: Five tons of nitrogen oxides, 6.5 tons of particulate matter, 1,487 tons of carbon dioxide and 99 tons of sulfur dioxide. Those emissions have been linked to cancer, asthma and other health concerns.

Thanks to wind patterns, the exhaust then moves over Red Hook and into Carroll Gardens.

It all sounds terrible. But unlike many environmental problems, this one has a relatively easy solution. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have set aside $15 million to build an electrical plug-in station at Brooklyn’s Cruise Terminal, so that cruise ships can do here what they do in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Juneau, Alaska and Europe—plug in to the local power grid and turn off their engines.

Of the $15 million, $2.858 million will be provided through an EPA grant. The rest is funded by the Port Authority.

But, the city and the New York State Power Authority are battling over the cost to subsidize Carnival Cruise ships for making the switch from idling with bunker fuel to plugging in and paying for electrical power.

Until the rates and who will pay them are determined, the project to build the electrical plug-in station is stalled.

“The project we approved will have the passenger ships plug in at the shore dock instead of spewing pollution when they dock there,” said Steven Coleman, spokesman for Port Authority. “Prior to approval, there was back and forth on power rates.”

Craig Hammerman, District Manager of Community Board 6, the city government board that oversees South Brooklyn, says the stalemate is “vexing.”

“We’ve been actively advocating to all of these entities that this is something that we need to get done,” Hammerman said. “The funding is set aside, the only thing holding everything back is for the Power Authority to establish a rate. We would have expected that they would realize how important this is to the community.

“The stars are lined up to help solve this problem. We just have to get to the Power Authority to move this thing forward,” Hammerman said.

New York’s cruise ship industry is booming—the city is now the third largest cruise ship market in the country. Red Hook’s Brooklyn Cruise Ship Terminal, built in 2006, is home to the $800 million Queen Mary 2, the largest cruise ship in the world, only 117 feet shorter than the 1,248-foot tall Empire State Building.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation’s NYCruise website says the industry brings $1.13 billion to the city each year. The Cruise Ship industry estimates that passengers spend $175 a day while docked here.

In 2006, the city spent $52 million to build the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, in Red Hook, and $200 million to expand and upgrade the old cruise ship terminals on the west side of Manhattan.

In early 2009, the Port Authority and other parties agreed to build the shore power plug-in. On Aug. 5 of this year, the Port Authority went ahead and approved the $15 million to construct the power station, called “shore power.” The agreement says that Carnival Cruise agrees to pay $0.12 per-kilowatt-hour for the power, while the city Economic Development Corporation and the New York State Power Authority agree to share the remainder of the cost for the power. But no agreement has been made on who will pay how much.

“We do not have an agreement with the city,” said Michael Saltzman, spokesman for the New York Power Authority. The Power Authority provides electricity to cities and utilities, and is the largest state power provider in the nation, fueled in large part by the incredible electricity-generating power of Niagara Falls.

It is not clear why the four-year-old Brooklyn Cruise Terminal was not outfitted from the start with an electrical plug in. U.S. Navy ships have been using such plug in systems for decades.

Cruise ships are not the only problem on the waterfront. Container ships also generate toxic exhaust. They could also plug in to shore power stations.

Carnival plugs in to shore power up and down the West Coast, but no plug-ins exist on the East Coast. A Carnival subsidiary, Princess, debuted a shore power program in Juneau, Alaska, in 2001. The program expanded to Seattle in 2005, and to Vancouver in 2009. Princess has invested $7 million to outfit nine of its ships with the capability to plug in to shore-side power, according to company documents. The actual connection is a traditional yet very large plug and socket.

An article last year in The New York Times said it would cost “millions of dollars” more every year for Carnival to pay for the shore power as opposed to idling in port. The article says that in 2008, the city and the Port Authority lobbied the state Power Commission to lower the rate for shore power to make it cheaper for Carnival. The U.S. EPA supported the request, the article says.

The issue is a political hot potato—nobody wants to talk on the record about the rate dispute. Saltzman said he couldn’t comment further on what the electricity rate for the ships would be.

Hammerman said that Los Angeles is a “model” for what Brooklyn could do to clean its port.

He gives credit to a Red Hook resident, Adam Armstrong, for educating the community and elected officials on the issue.

“We’ve learned a heck of a lot because of his research and advocacy,” Hammerman said.

Adam Armstrong: Brooklyn’s Cruise Ship Pollution Fighter

Armstrong, a double bass player, music teacher and father, owns a house on Pioneer Street, in view of the docking Queen Mary 2.

When he realized the city and state were dragging their feet on shore power, he launched a blog in 2009 dedicated to publicizing the issue.

“When the cruise ship terminal was being built in 2006, not that many people seemed worried about it. Reading articles about ship pollution, container ships and cruise ships, I saw that ships were plugging in to electricity and shutting off their engines. So here we had a so-called state-of-the-art cruise ship terminal, and nothing was being done to mitigate the pollution.

“I decided to write it all down so it would be a resource for people.”

Armstrong is frustrated with the process and what seems like a “black hole” of information regarding the rate debate.

“There’s been all kinds of hoops to jump through. Red Hook projects have some of the highest asthma rates, and yet here they are, burning this incredibly dirty fuel.

“It’s amazing to me. Why wouldn’t you have the greenest practice possible? It’s a new cruise terminal. Why wouldn’t you do this? It’s been on the West Coast for a decade.

“In the city of New York, it seems astounding to me there’s not a push to do this stuff.

“This is the low hanging fruit. It’s the easiest thing to do.

“But I haven’t heard anything. It’s stuck in an abyss.”

Check out Adam Armstrong’s Blog, A View From the Hook.

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