Norwegian Breakaway at Ocean Gateway
The 1,068-foot Norwegian Breakaway docked and idles last week at Ocean Gateway in Portland, with nearly 4,000 passengers and a crew of more than 1,600. The ship is not equipped to remove pollutants from the smoke it emits. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)
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With Portland voters preparing to decide by referendum if they want to limit the economic and environmental impacts of cruise ships, city officials, waterfront labor representatives, and crafters of the November referendum have pivoted to a strategy they believe would soften the financial impact of the ballot question.

While the ships carrying thousands of passengers and crew are more frequently calling on the city as late summer turns to fall, the consensus from the local stakeholders is now to oppose Question E on the Nov. 8 ballot in favor of a new compromise proposal while allowing the city to continue to work on it.

The referendum would have put the city’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee’s work on cruise ships on hold until after the vote. But District 4 City Councilor Andrew Zarro, the committee chair, said the committee now will continue its work before November and incorporate the new proposal into its discussions.

Andrew Johnson of Maine DEP
Andrew Johnson, director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Air Quality Assessment Division, said monitoring data from September and October could paint a better picture of how cruise ships impact Portland’s air quality. (Contributed)

Question E would limit the number of cruise ship passengers who can disembark to 1,000 a day. The goal is to reduce congestion in the Old Port and cut traffic and pollution.

But it was met with opposition in an Aug. 8 City Council meeting, where opponents expressed concerns about the adverse effects it could have on the waterfront economy. In a follow-up email, Sarah Flink, director of CruiseMaine, said enacting a 1,000-passenger limit would restrict disembarkation by about 95 percent, making it unlikely ships would continue to visit at all.

On Sept. 1, stakeholders on both sides of the argument, including referendum sponsor the Maine Democratic Socialists of America and the International Longshoremen’s Association, reached a compromise and released a press release with an alternative to the referendum.

The alternative won’t be on the ballot but will be part of the framework for the continued efforts of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, where the focus has shifted to reducing cruise ships’ carbon emissions by implementing shoreside electricity. That in turn could increase waterfront jobs.

Part of the work ahead for the Sustainability and Transportation Committee includes a planned conversation about the expansion of the electrical grid, which needs to be three times larger to achieve the city’s electrification goals, and would have to happen to enable shore power, Zarro said.

“That’s the future,” he added. “That’s going to happen.”

The new proposal requires the installation of a shoreside power station for ships by 2028 and suggests a $2.50-per-passenger charge to the cruise industry on ships that come into Portland harbor, meant to offset costs for the power stations.

The possibility of shoreside power for Portland was discussed by the committee in May, but it was unclear at that point how easily it could be implemented in Portland. Flink said there’s widespread agreement that people want shore power to happen, but the work is still underway to explore how Portland can provide it.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report from 2017 found ships that are docked and using shore power generally produce no emissions. But even at the 14 ports internationally that offer shoreside electricity, none currently require the ships to use it. 

According to the Cruise Line International Association, the goal is for all ships to be compatible with shoreside electricity by 2035.

Providing shoreside electricity as an option for cruise ships may also fit with the One Climate Future sustainability plan for Portland and South Portland. But it’s still too early to know what changes would have to be made to the grid to do so.

Portland Sustainability Coordinator Troy Moon said he couldn’t comment on the potential of implementing shore power by 2028, because there’s so little information available. But he said he was encouraged by discussions the city has had with cruise industry officials and their transparency about wanting to better understand emissions data.

In the meantime, there are more than 50 cruise ships scheduled to arrive in Portland with capacities of 2,000 or more passengers for the remainder of the 2022 season, ending on Nov. 1 – not to mention a longer season next year, starting as early as mid-May.

Clear blue skies during the last days of August provided the background for visible pollutants some ships emitted last week while they were docked at Ocean Gateway, their massive engines idling.

Many ships now use exhaust gas cleaning systems, or scrubbers, to remove pollutants. But at least one of last week’s arrivals, the Norwegian Breakaway, which idled in Portland on Aug. 30, has not been equipped with such technology, according to the Norwegian Cruise Lines website. The ship, which carries almost 4,000 passengers, was docked for most of the day.

The almost 1,000-foot Norwegian Pearl, capable of carrying more than 2,300 passengers, docked in Portland on Aug. 31 and has been the target of emissions complaints in the past. As recently as 2018, the Juneau Empire reported, there were nine calls to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation about the Norwegian Pearl’s emissions, as the ship emitted a large plume while it docked.

Andrew Johnson, director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection Air Quality Assessment Division, said there haven’t been any recent complaints to his office. He said that whenever fossil fuels are burned, they produce air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. If you visibly see smoke, for example, he said, those are the particles.

In the case of the emissions in Alaska, where cruise industry individuals argued that observers were seeing steam rather than pollutants, Johnson said that could be the case, but there’s a way to tell the difference.

“We’re trained, when we do visible emissions observations … to view the opacity – how much light gets through it – and we’re able to determine whether it’s steam or particles,” he said. The more opaque the smoke, the more particulate matter.

Johnson and some of his staff met with Portland officials and representatives of the cruise industry on Aug. 31 to discuss emissions and learn more about data the DEP has available on the city’s air quality. 

He said it was a genuine and positive discussion on how to better understand how cruise ships impact air quality. As a result, air quality monitoring over the next two months will be conducted with cruise ship schedules in mind to see if there are any noticeable changes in quality.

As part of a 2019 monitoring project, Johnson said, the DEP has been collecting data at eight locations in Portland and South Portland for almost three years. The project wasn’t targeted at cruise ships, but one of the monitoring stations is at Ocean Gateway.

“We are going to take a look at that just to see (if we are) seeing anything different during the September and October timeframe compared to when there were no cruise ships here,” he said.

The available recent data can be compared to past years, Johnson noted, but it’s been collected throughout the pandemic with a lack of cruise ship activity and doesn’t paint a picture of how the ships impact Portland’s air quality.

Data gathering can take as long as a month, so current results would likely be available in November. Johnson added that monitoring will continue through next year, which will provide even more data points when an even longer cruise season is expected.

Part of the challenge with evaluating cruise ship emissions is the lack of reliable data, he said, which is why a solid data set from next year will be an even better indicator of whether the ships can coexist with the city’s sustainability goals.

Until then, and as this season sails into the fall, the debate over cruise ships in Portland is sure to continue.