Tackling River Traffic Pollution

by kespeland on February 9, 2010


On this morning, Ron Bledsoe, the captain of the James E. Anderson, is in radio contact with one of his deckhands.

“OK, you need to slide over to your port about seven inches.”

“Coming up…”

They’re working together to get their towboat and the 15 barges of coal they’re hauling safely through a lock on the Ohio River.

“That’s beautiful right now. Jerking a wire on you.”

The James E. Anderson tug boat

Each year, diesel powered boats like the Anderson move about 42 million tons of cargo in the Port of Pittsburgh, the second busiest inland port in the country. Jim McCarville directs The Port of Pittsburgh Commission. He says commercial river boats are leaner and greener than some land- based freight carriers.

“We do move on the waterways cargo more efficiently both in fuel consumption and emission controls just by moving it on the water. ”

McCarville says if trucks carried all the cargo handled each year in the port, they’d use 50 million more gallons of diesel fuel and spew tons more carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.

“Folks like the Port of Pittsburgh are using valid calculations.”

That’s Jim Corbett , a professor of marine and earth studies at the University of Delaware. Corbett is one of the first people to study riverboat emissions. He found that while tugs and towboats do emit less pollution than trucks, their engines still pollute.

“We found that the emissions from waterway activity were not negligible . What we’re talking about in general is the sort of ambient air quality problems that are associated with human health and their sources.”

Barge full of coal

Corbett’s research puts commercial riverboats in this region’s top- ten list of nitrogen oxides polluters. Nitrogen oxides help to form smog, particulate matter pollution and acid rain which contribute to serious heart and lung problems. Even so, riverboat emissions escaped regulation for years. The first marine engine emission law was finalized in 1999. Tougher standards were put into place just two years ago. Byron Bunker with EPA’s Division of Transportation and Air Quality says the reason is “evolving technology.”

“It’s not that we’ve forgotten that marine was out there but rather we’ve been enforcing the introduction of new technology as quickly as it can. Technologies will come from land-based construction and agricultural equipment.”

Right now, EPA standards call for low-sulfur diesel fuel and emission- reducing upgrades in marine engines. Chuck Minton is president of Campbell Transportation, a small riverboat company in Washington County, Pennsylvania. He’s discovered that engine overhauls will pay for themselves pretty quickly.

“You’re looking at a fuel savings in the 10 to 15% range when compared to the older technology.”

But EPA wants new marine engines that use catalytic technology beginning in 2014.These ultra clean- burning engines could cost anywhere from two to four million dollars apiece. The Environmental Protection Agency figures that most riverboat companies will have new engines in place in about 20 years. The agency projects that will mean an 80% drop in nitrogen oxides and particulate matter and billions in health savings.

Back on the James Anderson, chief engineer Austin Davenport keeps his eye on the boat’s two huge diesel powered engines.

“We are responsible carriers. We are all concerned about the environment. You know, the river is what makes our livelihood so we have to give back that which we take from.”

The Ohio River is a busy highway. From barges piled high with coal to the tug boats that guide them, the traffic never stops from Cairo (KAY-roh) to Pittsburgh. And that traffic is causing more pollution than you might think. For the Ohio River Radio Consortium, Ann Murray takes us to the Port of Pittsburgh to find out what is—and isn’t—being done about it.

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