U.S. EPA is seeking to impose stricter emission regulations on marine vessels along U.S. coastlines, a move expected to dramatically slash air pollution in port cities, Administrator Lisa Jackson announced today.

The move makes the United States the first country to ask the International Maritime Organization, or IMO, to create an emissions control area around the nation's coastline.

"This is an important – and long overdue – step in our efforts to protect the air and water along our shores, and the health of the people in our coastal communities," Jackson said at a news conference at Port Newark in New Jersey. "We want to ensure the economic strength of our port cities at the same time that we take responsible steps to protect public health and the environment in the United States and across the globe."

Last October, the London-based IMO announced rules that would lower the cap for sulfur content in fuel for ships traveling in international waters beginning in 2012. The rules would also provide more rigorous protections in designated areas with demonstrated air pollution problems.

EPA has proposed that a 230-mile buffer zone around the nation's coastline be subject to those tougher regulations. The IMO is expected to review the request at its July meeting, and the designation would go into effect in 2012.

Under the IMO's rules, ships entering emission control areas will ultimately be required to cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 80 percent, particulate matter by 85 percent and sulfur oxides by 95 percent, relative to current emissions levels.

"We have known for a long time that our families that live around ports have a higher rate of respiratory illness, including cancer," said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "EPA's announcement today is music to my ears because it means the United States is stepping forward to take a strong leadership role on clean air around ports."

Large, ocean-bound vessels account for about 40 percent of all U.S. mobile-source emissions of sulfur dioxide and put out about 745,000 tons of nitrogen oxide per year, according to EPA estimates. The EPA inspector general's office said last week that the agency's efforts to slash ship emissions at ports have not gone far enough to protect human health

"For far too long, these tankers and big ships have been poorly regulated, and there's just an enormous amount of progress to be made in protecting human health and the environment by cleaning up the fuel and ensuring that they meet modern emission control standards," said Vickie Patton, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund.

A report [pdf] released today by clean air advocacy groups found that more than 87 million Americans live in port areas that do not meet federal health-based air quality standards.

Researchers estimate that shipping pollution is associated with 60,000 global deaths annually, according to the report, co-authored by the American Lung Association, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Association of Clean Air Agencies and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

The creation of an emissions control area would save up to 8,300 American and Canadian lives every year by 2020, according to EPA.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500