Federal regulators have reached a tentative deal with Carnival Corp. on a plan to reduce air pollution from nearly a third of its cruise ships, but the accord comes too late to reverse at least a temporary loss of lucrative cruise business for Baltimore.
Under the agreement, to be announced today, the Miami-based company pledged to install pollution control equipment on 32 of its ships over the next three years and use it while they cruise in waters near the U.S. coast. During that time, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard will exempt those vessels from a pending requirement that they burn less-polluting fuel.
A treaty approved by the International Maritime Organization requires all oceangoing vessels to start using lower-sulfur fuel in 2015 whenever they are within 200 miles of Canada and the United States. The requirement is meant to reduce harmful sulfur and particulate pollution from shipping, a move EPA officials say will yield major air-quality improvements well inland and prevent thousands of premature deaths.
Instead of using the cleaner but more costly fuel, Carnival, the world's largest cruise company, plans to install emission controls on a portion of its ships that regularly ply coastal waters. EPA officials say if Carnival's emission control technology works, it could reduce pollution more than the international rule requires while also yielding long-term relief from higher fuel costs.
Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA's office of transportation and air quality, said the agency is "very pleased that the cruise industry has stepped up to meet its obligations."
Tom Dow, Carnival's vice president for public affairs in Washington, called the deal "a major commitment" and projected that it would cost the company $180 million. The company plans to install the emission controls in phases, he said. The ships will also burn low-sulfur fuel or hook up to shore-based power when in port, an emissions reduction not required, he noted.
Carnival cited unresolved talks with EPA over compliance with the low-sulfur fuel requirement when it announced in late June that it would stop sailing from Baltimore next year. The 2,124-passenger Pride, which makes weekly cruises to the Bahamas and Caribbean, would be relocated to Tampa in November 2014.
The move leaves the city with just one other large cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas, still sailing regularly from the South Locust Point terminal. Port officials say the two cruise ships combined support 220 jobs and pump $90 million into the economy.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, warned by port officials that Carnival would relocate the Pride without some relief, contacted the EPA's acting administrator, Robert Perciasepe, last spring to urge prompt action on Carnival's plan. Some environmentalists criticized the governor's intercession, but his spokeswoman said he was trying to protect the jobs.
Dow said the deal would not alter the Pride's move to Florida late next year.
"The deployment decision for 2014 is made, and it's set," Dow said. "But 2015 and beyond, those schedules have not yet been finalized."
Grundler said the EPA had been in talks with Carnival for months but had yet to reach an accord when the company announced it was pulling ships out of Baltimore, Boston and Norfolk, citing the costs of the low-sulfur fuel requirement. The company wanted an exemption for 59 ships in return for a pledge to put scrubbers on them, but federal regulators would not agree to that many.
O'Malley said Wednesday that he hoped Carnival would return to Baltimore, saying the cruise business is vital to the region's economy. He said he didn't really know why it took so long to reach a deal, but noted that Royal Caribbean "seems to have found a way to abide by the EPA's environmental protections and continue ... to do cruises out of Baltimore."
The Grandeur of the Seas, based in Baltimore, is one of six Royal Caribbean ships being allowed to continue burning higher-sulfur fuel while pollution scrubbers are installed.
Carnival plans to install a twin system of pollution controls, one to filter particulates from the ship's stack emissions and another to "scrub" sulfur compounds from the exhaust gases. Though widely used on land, the system's use in an oceangoing vessel is "novel," Grundler said. Carnival tested the systems on a ship in Europe, and regulators were satisfied that it worked, he added.
The ships would use seawater to scrub sulfur from their emissions and then discharge it overboard. After particulates were removed, Dow said, the wastewater would need no other treatment, except perhaps to lower its acidity.
Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington environmental group, said the tentative deal offers "short-term pollution increases [and] maybe some long-term benefits." Unless properly enforced, he warned, the deal could be "just for show."
Dow said Carnival has agreed to monitor the ships' stack emissions and seawater discharges continuously.
Port officials hope to persuade Carnival to return, said James White, the Maryland Port Administration's executive director, but continue searching for a replacement.
Before Carnival announced its pullout, port officials had considered expanding the cruise terminal, which can handle only one ship at a time.
"We'll get over this; we'll build it back" White said. "It's a setback for us. We love Carnival, but our goal is to get them back and others. We're not satisfied with two ships."
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.