LA's Busy Anchorages Attract Environmentalists' Scrutiny

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Published Oct 13, 2021 10:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have long been under a microscope for their contribution to Southern California's air quality issues. Vessels, diesel trucks and yard equipment all put out particulate matter, SOx and NOx in varying quantities, and the LA basin has notorious challenges with air quality due to its large population, its weather and its location.

The ports have made great strides in reducing their smog-related emissions over the years, but they have a new challenge: an unprecedented concentration of container ships at anchor, waiting off the coast for days or weeks at a time. Over the last two months, the average number of vessels adrift or anchored has been hovering in the range of 60-70 vessels. 

California environmentalists, lawmakers and regulators have taken note, because - while these vessels are outside of the port - anchored ships do have an additional impact on overall emissions from maritime activity. 

“If you go down to the harbor, you can see the ships going out for several miles, and you can see the emissions coming out of their smokestacks,” said Taylor Thomas, the co-executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, speaking to Grist.

The U.S. Coast Guard also believes that it is likely that activity at the anchorage caused the recent spill off the coast of Orange County. The San Pedro Bay Pipeline released an estimated 25,000-130,000 gallons of crude oil about five miles off Huntington Beach last week, and a dive inspection found that the line had been pulled about 100 feet from its charted position. According to USCG lead investigator Capt. Jason Neubauer, the evidence suggests that the line was hooked and dragged by the anchor of a large deep-sea vessel - and it may have been struck more than once. Based on the amount of marine growth on damaged parts of the line, the first incident likely occurred months in the past, Neubauer said. 

In response to a perceived risk of pollution from all of the activity at the port's anchorages, Rep. Michelle Steel (CA-48) has introduced a bill that would temporarily ban vessels from anchoring or idling within 24 nautical miles of the coast of Orange County. The bill would effectively push waiting vessels out past the edge of the 24-nm contiguous zone, where coastal state customs jurisdiction ends.

“Cargo ships idling for months off the Orange County coastline have become an environmental and public health crisis. It’s time to get the ports working again and get these ships moving and out of our waters. This [spill] could have been prevented and it’s important that we protect our waters and coastline,” said Rep. Steel.