TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - Shipping companies that haul iron ore, coal and other freight on the Great Lakes have enlisted support from leading congressional Democrats to ward off air pollution regulations they say would be a financial burden.
A group representing the 55 U.S.-flagged vessels that operate on the lakes is hoping for relief from a House-Senate conference committee expected to meet this week in Washington to negotiate a compromise on a natural resources spending bill.
The Lake Carriers' Association was seeking at least a partial exemption from rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency that would require large vessels operating within 200 miles of a U.S. coast to use cleaner - and costlier - fuel and improve engine technology.
The rules are designed to reduce emissions of airborne contaminants blamed for smog, acid rain, respiratory ailments and possibly cancer. Large ships are leading producers of nitrogen and sulfur oxides and tiny contaminated particles that foul the air near ports and coastlines and hundreds of miles inland, EPA says.
"This is one of the most significant public health protection standards that the EPA has set in recent years," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group. "We hope it won't be torpedoed by special interest politics."
But the industry group said the regulations would ground 13 aging steamships while forcing 13 others to use fuel 70 percent more expensive than the present blend. The added cost to Great Lakes shippers - about $210 million - would be passed to their customers, said Jim Weakley, president of the shipping association.
"It would be catastrophic," he said. "If 50 percent of our carrying capacity is either taken out or at risk, we can't do our job."
Some officials in Alaska say the rules could deter visits to their ports by cruise ships, which are important to the state economy.
As written, they would require ships by 2012 to burn fuel with sulfur content not exceeding 1 percent, or 10,000 parts per million. In 2015, the limit would drop to 1,000 parts per million.