Contaminated wastewater from ships harmful to orcas: WWF study

Cruise ships that use scrubbers to comply with international sulphur-limit laws may be unintentionally harming endangered whales off the coast of B.C., says a new WWF-commissioned study.

The report “A whale of a problem? Heavy fuel oil, exhaust gas cleaning systems, and British Columbia’s resident killer whales” was released this week by the International Council on Clean Transportation. The study was funded by World Wildlife Fund Canada.

For the study, researchers analysed 30 commercial ships operating off the coast of B.C. that are equipped with exhaust gas cleaning systems, also called scrubbers, that remove harmful sulphur oxides from exhaust gases of heavy fuel oil used in marine engines.

Open-looped scrubbers, the most commonly used system, pump a mix of water and contaminants into the ocean called wash water. The wash water contains “carcinogenic substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals,” according to the report.

There are no federal laws about ships operating in “open” mode, but the report is calling for legislation to eliminate open-looped scrubbers.

A Transport Canada spokeswoman, Annie Joannette, said the department is reviewing the WWF report.

She said the international rules for the scrubbers require continuous monitoring of discharges to measure their acidity, levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and particulate content.

The WWF report found that the 30 ships studied in 2017 emitted nearly 35 million tonnes of scrubber wastewater off the B.C. coast, including in areas where there are endangered species of killer whales. Cruise ships were responsible for 90% of these discharges, according to the study.

Of the 30 ships with scrubbers installed, 16 had open-loop scrubbers and 14 had a hybrid of open and closed-loop scrubbers.

The report said it is possible that some ship operators sometimes voluntarily operate in closed-loop mode, which collects the slurry to be deposited at a waste-disposal site on land.

The researchers say that the reason ship operators may not use the closed-loop mode is because it is more expensive.

However, Robert Lewis-Manning, president of the Chamber of Shipping, says it’s much more complicated than that. There are many other reasons why a ship may not used the closed-loop system, including that it requires carrying more chemicals on board to employ the system.

“It’s a trade-off and a risk management decision when to use that technology. So you can imagine if you are in the business of moving dangerous substances adding another risk is something you don’t want to do,” said Lewis-Mann.

While more than 50% of ships in the study use open-looped scrubbers, the researchers predict this could grow by 35% in 2020, and that cruise ships could account for two-thirds of this increase.

Lewis-Manning said while the report also suggests there will be an increase in heavy fuel oil use, he believes this is not the case.

There will be a decrease in the use of heavy fuel oil, driven by climate change objectives, which will force ship owners to use alternative fuels like LNG and biofuels, said Lewis-Manning.

This is all “evolving very quickly because of the pressure to decrease greenhouse gas emissions,” he added.

Southern resident killer whales are critically endangered, with only 76 individuals remaining, and northern resident killer whales are threatened with 309 animals remaining.

They are under enormous amounts of stress from dwindling food sources caused by climate change, and Hussein Alidina, lead specialist of oceans with WWF-Canada, says the discharge from ships may be adding to their stress.

“Pollution and contamination from all sources, including shipping, need to be reduced for long-term recovery of this population to be possible,” he said.

Researchers say polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are stored in killer whale’s fat reserves, and can cause cancer and other health problems.

Alidina said the recovery strategy for the resident killer whales recognises that these chemicals being released may be another factor contributing to mortality.

“The metals accumulate in the liver, and the marrow and kidneys,” he said. And they are being passed on to calves from mother’s milk.

“I think the situation with the residents is that there are multiple threats. … The lack of food, the noise, the disturbance, the toxic contamination, they are facing death by a thousand cuts, and here is another thing we are exposing them to,” he said, adding more studies are need to show how much of an effect the wash water is having on the whales.

WWF Canada says transitioning away from heavy oil to fuels that don’t require scrubbers will eliminate this threat and help set a course for zero-emission shipping by 2050.

Companies have been installing scrubbers because in 2020 the International Maritime Organisation will begin enforcing a fuel sulphur limit of 0.5% by mass (5,000 ppm) down from a limit of 3.5%. The report says many companies have switched to scrubbers to comply with the regulations so they do not have to switch to cleaner and more expensive fuels.

Lewis-Manning said the report lacks the global context in which these decisions to use scrubbers have been made. On Jan. 1 the shipping industry will be required to reduce sulphur emissions, in a $10-billion investment he called “the single biggest regulatory shipping change” in history.

“What companies need to do is use lower sulphur fuel or use that scrubber technology to reduce sulphur so it’s huge. On a global scale this is a massive change,” he said.

He said Transport Canada will have a responsibility to monitor the new technologies and the performance of the scrubbers.

Other findings from the report include that 90% of ships carrying heavy fuel oil in B.C. pass through killer whale habitat, and that several coastal states and ports have banned open-loop scrubber discharge, including California, China and, most recently, Malaysia. Singapore and Fujairah, in the UAE, will ban discharges starting in 2020, the report states.

Carnival and Princess cruise lines, which are named in the report as using open-looped systems in B.C., were contacted for comment on the WWF report. Officials for the cruise lines did not return messages, however a spokesperson for the Cruise Lines International Association, of which both are members, said studies have shown no harm to marine organisms from Carnival’s open loop scrubbers.

CLIA spokesperson Anne Madison Madison pointed to a two-year study conducted for Carnival in February by DNV-GL, an independent risk management company, that studied 79 scrubber wash water samples from 23 ships. The study concluded all samples fell within international standards for PAH and nitrate concentrations.

Madison said the Cruise Lines International Association is “passionate about clean oceans and committed to responsible tourism practices and the highest standards of environmental stewardship—with policies and practices often exceeding those required by law.”

Madison also noted that open-loop scrubbers that use heavy fuel oil produce an equivalent or better environmental outcome than burning marine gas oil, with almost all sulphur removed from air emissions.

More than one million passengers on 288 cruise ships visited Vancouver in 2019, according to the Port of Vancouver. This represents a 22% increase in passengers compared to the 2018 season.