Will we soon B.C.-ing a scrubber discharge ban in Vancouver?

In our new report on the estimated global distribution of ship scrubber discharges, the Port of Vancouver ranked fourth in the world with 5.2 million tonnes (Mt) of washwater expected within 1 nautical mile of the port once shipping returns to pre-pandemic levels of operation. The vast majority of this is expected to come from cruise ships* that dock at Port of Vancouver terminals, although other ship types are also discharging throughout the rest of Canada. But it’s not inevitable. The Port of Vancouver could take advantage of the Canadian pause on cruises and, when they return in 2022, they can come back without polluting the port’s waters with scrubber washwater.

The Port of Vancouver is situated in the Salish Sea, where water pollution is a grave issue for the iconic resident killer whales, which are critically endangered and threatened by water contaminants. These marine mammals are protected in both the Canadian Species at Risk Act and the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and water pollutants are listed as a major cause of decline in the populations. However, while the resident killer whale critical habitat areas overlap with shipping lanes, the protection from these Acts relies on mechanisms and standards from other legislation and this allows scrubber discharge to fall through the proverbial cracks. Meanwhile, the contents of the scrubber discharge, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals, have been linked to reproductive dysfunction and cancer in marine mammals, including orcas. With this in mind, we previously investigated scrubber discharges in the ranges of British Columbia’s resident killer whales and estimated that of the 35 Mt of washwater discharged within 200 nautical miles of Canada’s west coast, 3.3 Mt was dumped inside the resident killer whales’ Canadian critical habitat in 2017. Now ships are expected to dump 108 Mt within 200 nautical miles of the entire Canadian coastline, according to our report.

Figure 1. Distribution of scrubber washwater discharges on the east and west coasts of Canada. For more information, see the interactive map published with our report.

The Port of Vancouver is a busy cruise port during typical years, with more than 800,000 passengers coming through the cruise terminals each year. Many Alaska-bound cruises start in Seattle, stop at Vancouver, and then make their way up the Strait of Georgia to Alaska. Our estimates show that Canada has saved itself millions of tonnes of scrubber washwater pollution by barring the 2020–2021 cruise season due to COVID. Additionally, the U.S. Port of Seattle has already prohibited passenger cruise ships from discharging scrubber washwater at berth. The port is still a ways off from an entire scrubber ban, though, as we found that about one-third of scrubber discharges in the port are from container ships.

In the Port of Vancouver, cruise ships are given the option to “plug-in” and use shore power, but this only eliminates scrubber discharges for the ships that connect, and only for the time they’re at berth. According to the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, cruise ships and container ships using shore power avoided about 4,400 tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2019. Of those, about 3,600 tonnes were avoided by cruise ships that plugged in, based on data from the port authority. According to the methodology from our global scrubber discharges report, if all the cruise ships that plugged in were scrubber-equipped, that would have avoided about 280,000 tonnes of scrubber discharges. That’s not bad, but it’s a mere 5% of the 5.2 Mt of washwater we expect ships with scrubbers to dump in the Port of Vancouver. So, while shore power helps reduce air and water pollution, there’s still a case for banning scrubbers throughout the port.

The British Columbia coast is not alone in its potential to ban scrubber discharges. On Canada’s east coast, Sydney, Nova Scotia is expected to get more than 1 Mt of scrubber discharges in its port waters, all from cruises. The Port of Vancouver could join the Canadian iron ore port of Sept-Îles, Quebec, which has already banned open-loop scrubber discharges inside port boundaries (it should also consider banning closed-loop discharges) and this could lay the groundwork for a country-wide ban. We estimate that Sept-Îles, Quebec’s ban alone has prevented a quarter of a million tonnes of discharges from entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence from bulk carriers and cruises. Up-river, Montreal and City of Quebec’s ports expect a combined total of 900,000 tonnes of washwater, with over 90% of it from cruises, and these ports could also consider banning scrubber discharges before cruise ships return.

The aforementioned resident killer whales are only one of the species that would benefit from a country-wide ban. For example, the belugas found on the east and Arctic coasts of Canada are at risk for the same impacts from scrubber pollution as the killer whales. A full Canadian ban on scrubbers would also reduce heavy fuel oil (HFO) use and carriage. Ships in the Canadian Arctic’s Northwest Passage, the Canadian portion of the Great Lakes, and in the St. Lawrence Seaway would carry less or no HFO in these areas, reducing the risks of an HFO spill. On the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway, some ships could avoid the ban by keeping to U.S. waters, so Canada might want to work with the United States to ban scrubbers in its waters, too, as we suggested the United States do in another blog last month.

A ban on scrubber discharges in the Port of Vancouver would take advantage of the current halt in cruises by preventing them from polluting the waters when they resume operations. It could also be a springboard for a nationwide ban on scrubbers that extends throughout Canadian waters, including the Arctic, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the Great Lakes. Banning scrubbers would affirm Canada’s commitment to protect endangered species and the environment, and ultimately to protect human health and wellbeing.

*Updated 6 May 2021. A small amount of the discharge comes from ships other than cruises.