Tuesday night, after considering a resolution in favor of shoreside power plug-ins for visiting cruise ships, Charleston City Council passed a watered-down version of the original resolution. Whereas the original resolution called on state lawmakers to mandate the use of plug-in power at the planned Union Pier cruise terminal in Charleston, the new one deferred the matter to the State Ports Authority's judgment.
City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie introduced the original resolution, saying it was about "putting people's health first" and doing "what's best, not what's better." Idling cruise ships release pollutants and known carcinogens into the air while docked in Charleston, and some downtown residents have complained about soot accumulating on their houses since Carnival Cruise Lines started coming to Charleston. Several neighborhood associations and environmental groups have called for the new terminal to include a plug-in for grid power so that cruise ships don't idle in the harbor. Onshore power has been added to numerous cruise ports, including Brooklyn, N.Y.; Juneau, Alaska; San Francisco, Calif.; and Seattle, Wash.
A study commissioned by the Charleston-based Southern Environmental Law Center found that shoreside power could reduce carbon monoxide emissions from docked cruise ships by as much as 97 percent. The study also found that a 2,000-passenger Carnival ship emits 68.3 metric tons of nitrogen oxide a year while idling in Charleston. With shoreside power, the same ship would emit only 0.8 metric tons of nitrogen oxide per year.
Jim Newsome, president of the State Ports Authority, spoke against the proposal at Tuesday night's meeting. Installing shoreside power would add an estimated $5 million to Union Pier's projected $35 million price tag, and the SPA has been fighting the proposal tooth and nail. "There's really no data that the cruise ships create a health problem in Charleston," Newsome said at the meeting.
Dr. Gil Baldwin, a local physician, disputed that claim. He said the "elephant in the room" was polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are not affected by new "scrubber" technologies in cruise ships' smokestacks. That particular category of pollutants has been linked to a long list of cancers, and Baldwin said shore power would virtually eliminate their emissions from idling ships.
During council debate over Gregorie's resolution, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. introduced a shortened version of the resolution with more deferential language, and it ultimately passed 10-2. The new resolution states:
"City Council endorses the actions taken, and to be taken, by the State Ports Authority in maintaining and improving the air quality at the Union Pier terminal and supports the efforts by the General Assembly to assure that funding is available for the installation of shore power at the new passenger terminal, as and when needed."
Jay Williams, a downtown resident and shore power activist, called the final resolution "a hollow victory" in an e-mail after the meeting.
"It's sad that the same City Council that stomped out smoking on the sidewalks around our hospitals has never attempted to regulate far more serious toxic emissions from cruise ships in port — or demand the obvious healthy shore power alternative," Williams wrote.