Julia Fast, Joana De Capitani and Kathleen Gill: It’s past time Canada banned dumping of ship scrubber discharge into our waters


Opinion: Scrubbers dump acidic sulphur, heavy metals and other chemicals into the ocean at levels that exceed thresholds set for protecting local marine life. Transport Canada has the authority to ban them

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When you go to the store and shop, you are likely to purchase at least one item that arrived in Vancouver on board a container ship.

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While container ships are necessary for a functioning global economy, many of the large ships that arrive at Vancouver’s port have scrubbers installed in their smokestacks that do more harm than good.

Just like the cars that we drive, ships must burn fossil fuels to power their engines. Many ships burn heavy fuel oil, which releases high amounts of sulfur into the air. To limit the environmental impact of ship emissions, the International Maritime Organization gave the shipping industry two options: switch to low-sulfur fuels or install scrubbers.

Scrubbers use a fine mist of water to remove sulfur from ship exhaust gas so that these pollutants are not expelled into the air. While effective at removing sulfur from air emissions, these systems essentially trade air pollution for water pollution. They take the pollutants from the smokestack and flush them into the ocean in wash water.

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A report commissioned by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority found that not only do scrubbers dump acidic sulfur into the ocean, but they also collect and dump heavy metal and other chemicals into the water at levels that exceed thresholds set for protecting local marine life. These chemicals accumulate in the environment and have been linked to cancers and reproductive disorders in marine mammals, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whale. These contaminants are not just restricted to marine life, but can transfer to humans through our consumption of seafood.

In addition to polluting the ocean, scrubbers allow the continued use of carbon-based fuels, continuing our climate crisis. More than 4,000 ships globally have installed scrubbers, and more continue to have them installed. Scrubbers keep ships reliant on climate damaging fuels, instead of transitioning to alternative fuels that are good for our planet.

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The International Council on Clean Transportation ranked the Port of Vancouver as the fourth most polluted port in the world. 5.2 million tonnes of wash water are expelled by ships every year. This is equivalent to filling an Olympic-sized swimming pool with polluted water over 2,000 times.

To address these concerns, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority you have started the process of banning the discharge of scrubber wash water from ships that use the port. While a step in the right direction, these restrictions only include the limited boundaries controlled by the port, including areas like Burrard Inlet, English Bay, and headwaters of the Fraser River. Outside of these boundaries, ships can continue to dump wash water and pollute the Strait of Georgia and much of the greater Salish Sea.

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The government of Canada has committed to reducing emissions nationally by 40 to 45 per cent by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Canada will not meet these climate targets by delaying decisions involving the transition to cleaner fuels.

Scrubbers are a glaring example of these delays, as discussions regarding scrubber use are ongoing despite scientific findings that show their harm. Transport Canada has the authority to implement national scrubber bans and mandate that ships in Canadian waters must use cleaner fuels. By failing to make decisions and take a hard stance on climate change, this ongoing issue is one of many that prevent Canada from making progress on its climate goals.

Let’s face the facts. Currently, Canada is allowing ships with scrubbers installed to operate in its waters, pollute the ocean through the discharge of wash water, and continue to use heavy fuel oils when greener alternatives are available. Join us in reaching out to your local member of Parliament and bringing this issue to their attention. Or reach out directly to Transport Canada with your concerns so that we can end pollutive discharge into our oceans and start achieving our climate goals before it is too late.

Joana De Capitani is a PhD student, and Julia Fast and Kathleen Gill are Master’s students at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.


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