After Spending Millions, the Port Authority Rethinks Plan on Curbing Ship Emissions


“If the city had announced to the community they were going to build a parking lot where 35,000 trucks would be idling for days at a time, people would be pretty pissed off,” Adam Armstrong tells me in his backyard in Red Hook, Brooklyn, as he points out where, during vacation season, he can see the smokestacks of the massive ocean liners just two blocks away. “Instead they told us they were building a wonderful new cruise terminal.”

When Armstrong moved to Red Hook in 2002, he was well aware of its history as a port community. Though the neighborhood was undergoing residential development, Armstrong hoped its industrial character would remain. So when, in 2004, the city announced that a cruise terminal would come to Red Hook in 2006, he didn’t necessarily think it was a bad thing.

“I thought it might make the waterfront more accessible,” Armstrong tells the Voice in the Pioneer Street home he shares with his wife and two children. As details about the terminal began to emerge, Armstrong, a musician, became curious about the environmental impact on his neighborhood. (He was right to be concerned: A 2012 study would reveal that oceangoing vessels were responsible for 64 percent of emissions at Red Hook terminals — and that the cruise ships docked there spew as much diesel exhaust in ten hours as those 35,000 idling trucks.) But the Economic Development Corporation, the quasi-public agency at the project’s helm, informed him that no emissions plan was in place. “They were bringing in a whole new source of pollution,” Armstrong explains, “and they weren’t admitting it or doing anything to address it.”

Armstrong’s research into possible solutions yielded one already in use in many places across the country: shore power, a technology that refits docked cruise ships to draw power from the local electrical grid, eliminating the need to run their exhaust-producing engines. It took years for Armstrong to persuade the Port Authority (which owns the port — the EDC just manages it) that shore power was the way forward; first came much cajoling of politicians and coalition-building within the community. In 2011, the agency coughed up almost $12 million for shore upgrades in Red Hook. The first power installation came online last fall. After the completion of that project however, the Port Authority is not planning on expanding the technology to any of the other terminals it administers.

“Shore power is a perfect way to keep jobs and industry in port communities while also helping to save the planet,” Armstrong says today. “We can all live together here, but only if we actually use it.” Indeed, the technology offers potentially enormous environmental and fiscal benefits. A 2015 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Delaware found that if just two-thirds of U.S. vessels shifted to the technology, which would involve uniformly retrofitting the vessels and making sure they plug in while in port, shore power could yield “an air quality benefit of $70–$150 million per year.” In other words, health and environmental benefits would then equal and eventually outweigh the costs of retrofitting the ships and creating the necessary infrastructure, estimated at $150 million for the first few years, with at least $30 million saved each year in fuel costs.

“It’s not like we’re in a vacuum where shore power hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world,” argues John Kaltenstein, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth who has been studying the use of shore power globally. California’s ports were its earliest adopters, first offering shore power back in 2004; in 2006, a state air quality agency implemented a plan to move 50 percent of ships calling at Long Beach, the state’s biggest port, to shore power by 2014, and 80 percent of ships by 2020. At least five other major ports, including those in Juneau and Seattle, have similar initiatives in place. “We have real developed ports with strong economies that have the responsibility of protecting their communities,” Kaltenstein told the Voice.

In a statement regarding the decision to walk shore power back, Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman explained that the agency “is greatly concerned about the health and well-being of the communities that surround its port facilities, which is why we are seriously considering new technology that would provide even greater environmental benefits than shore power. What is commonly referred to as stack technology or ‘sock on a stack’ is a pollution control device that is installed on a vessel that converts air pollutants into harmless materials like the catalytic converter in a car.”

The “sock on a stack” technology, a pilot for which will start at the Port Authority as soon as this year, is one that environmental advocates in New Jersey are likewise getting behind quickly. But while far cheaper than shore power, at just $1 million for each unit, the technology keeps large ships burning fossil fuels while in port, and carbon dioxide is still eventually released into the atmosphere.

Even so, given how long it could take the Port Authority to put together shore power infrastructure, holding out for it may not be feasible for a community already choking on smog. “We are always an advocate of pollution prevention, [and] capturing after the fact is not our ideal,” says Amy Goldsmith, the state director at Clean Water Action, an organization that pushes for healthier ports and port communities nationwide. “Would we rather have nothing or get some relief for downwind communities?”

Meanwhile, Armstrong hopes that the Port Authority will rethink its stance on the use of the technology he fought so hard for. Looking across New York Harbor from outside the cruise terminal, from which the cranes of Port Newark can be seen clearly, he recounted the argument that persuaded the agency in the first place — one he feels bears repeating. “I asked our politicians a really simple question: Aren’t children in Red Hook worthy of something that can help them live healthier lives?”

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