19 June 2019
This opinion piece was originally published on Lloyd’s List.
The words ‘port infrastructure’ usually conjure up images of quay walls, breakwaters, roads and cranes. But some of the most critical infrastructure to port operations is below the water — berths and navigational channels maintained at safe depths.
All UK harbour authorities, regardless of size or focus, share a common duty to act as guardians of this infrastructure and with it, enable the entire maritime economy. Dredging campaigns are an expensive but unavoidable reality for most ports and can on occasions be a challenging and even emotive issue.
The British Ports Association has been following the growing debate on the use of open-loop scrubbers with interest.
Our calls for a grown-up debate between ports and the shipping industry has been met with some understandable concern from certain quarters.
But we are determined to ensure that any potential impacts that affect port operations should be properly explored. To date, the focus has been firmly on water quality in the open ocean and coastal areas and latterly, ports. The main concern for most ports, however, is impact on sediments in harbour areas and enclosed waterways.
The debate on the effect of open-loop scrubbers on water quality continues. But the more specific debate on the impact on sediments in port areas — particularly ports with enclosed systems — has barely begun.
Our concern is that the contaminants being removed from ships’ exhaust emissions in ports could build up in sediments, perhaps over many years, making future dredging campaigns more problematic.
Clearly it is in the ports industry’s best interests that its customers can continue to call regularly, but we have seen some ports around the globe ban the use of open-loop scrubbers and that has not gone unnoticed here.
We are not taking an interest in this because it is fashionable but because it is wholly necessary. We are keen to have a sensible conversation with shipping industry, scrubber manufacturers and regulators. It’s not a bandwagon or fad but a genuine concern around a potential risk to the future viability of port operations.
Dredging is not cheap and disposing of contaminated sediments increases costs ten-fold. It also makes the process of obtaining consents for disposing of spoil much more time-consuming, difficult and on certain occasions almost impossible. Berths and navigational channels are key infrastructure for harbours and any potential risk to their viability is treated as a top priority for ports.
It may be that the risks are minimal, and that is our hope, but this remains an unknown.
We are keen to see robust evidence that placing these contaminants in the water at berths and in harbour areas will not build up and pose a risk to dredging operations.
A precautionary approach is not unreasonable when the potential risks are so high. The ideal solution is that the shipping industry can reassure UK ports that our industry will not be picking up the environmental and economic cost for scrubbers in years to come.
Environmental regulations are moving in one direction: they are becoming ever more restrictive and challenging. The view of UK regulators as to what constitutes a contaminant in sediments, or how much is tolerable, develops over time with advances in science and public attitudes.
Ports must bear that in mind when considering whether to allow pollutants to be discharged into their infrastructure.
We take no view on the viability or use of open-loop scrubbers outside of harbour areas. But within their limits UK ports have statutory duties to maintain and improve their harbours and that includes keep channels and berths at their advertised depths.
We understand that the stakes are high in this debate, but we do not believe that the business case for open-loop scrubbers is fatally undermined by turning them off and switching to compliant fuel when in harbour areas, and some operators are looking at this.
The UK government’s position is that open-loop scrubbers are an important part of the picture when complying with the sulphur cap and that ports should take decisions individually on a case by case basis.
Our concern is that introduces commercial considerations into the decisions and pits ports against one another, where they may lose business because of behaviour beyond their control. As an industry association we are beginning to question if that remains a viable position in the face of a lack of robust evidence that these systems will not create long-term issues for critical infrastructure.
The British Ports Association is keen to work with all those with an interest in this debate in a professional manner.
We believe that collaboration and discussion with our friends across the maritime industry can find a solution that allays what are very real concerns. Our door is and will remain open.