Transparency Makes for Good Neighbors in Port Communities

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Day-to-day operations at ports are often associated with negative impacts on public health. For example, heavy-duty equipment and on road trucks play a critical role in the movement of cargo around the globe, but they also emit diesel exhaust, a known carcinogen. There is certainly room for improvement, and some ports are making efforts to be good neighbors by increasing transparency with respect to their environmental performance.

I had an opportunity to learn about these leading ports at the Green Marine GreenTech 2014 conference, held in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. The purpose of Green Marine’s conference is to share both environmental successes and challenges, as well as to recognize participants (ship owners, ports, terminals, and shipyards in the US and Canada) for their leadership in the voluntary Green Marine environmental program. This program provides a framework for participants to identify specific environmental goals, establish baseline environmental metric values, self-report progress that is verified by a third-party, and earn recognition for their efforts. I wanted to share two notable examples of how some ports are opening their lines of communication and sharing their environmental performance.

First, Port Québec presented on a controversial environmental incident. In 2012, a cargo-handling facility released red dust containing heavy metals that dispersed beyond port boundaries into areas of Québec City; the dust contained high levels of nickel, which can cause short-term respiratory problems, according to the EPA. While the cleanup is still ongoing, to help the public stay up-to-date, the port provides status updates for all information requests on their website. Other Canadian ports, such as Port Metro Vancouver, Port Montreal, and the Prince Rupert Port Authority, have also adopted the approach of proactively disclosing information.

In contrast, we are not aware of any U.S. ports that have taken similar steps to provide the public with easy access to information that has already been shared through information requests, although there are federal laws in both Canada and the U.S. (and state laws in the U.S.) that give the public legal access to information. The extra step to proactively disclose information advances sharing between ports and the general public and reduces the need for citizens to make repeated requests for the same information.

Second, a unique aspect to Green Marine’s environmental recognition program is its annual performance report, through which the organization verifies the achievement of program participants (ports, terminals, and shipyards) in each of the Green Marine environmental areas. Scores in the areas of air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and community impacts are given, and then are presented in the annual report and on the website. Some of the program successes for 2014 included 93 percent of the participants restricting idling in port communities, 67 percent completing a greenhouse gas inventory, and the global program average of all environmental areas rising steadily since the program’s inception in 2008. By publically disclosing environmental performance—using common metrics in a similar fashion to sustainability reporting—participants in the program are held accountable to their commitments and receive recognition for their successful efforts.

There are obvious benefits to ports sharing information with their neighboring communities, namely building community trust and soliciting suggestions that can be used to help address complicated problems. Crowdsourcing ideas has been used effectively among ports to share sustainable design and construction guidelines, as an example, and this approach can be applied on a local level too. Community members can help decide between two emissions reduction projects that have similar air quality benefits, but one may be perceived as a preferred alternative for the community. For instance, cutting truck emissions has the added benefit of reduced noise and congestion if the project involves a route change, even though it might be equivalent in improved air quality as a project to convert heavy-duty equipment from diesel to electric.

EDF has been and continues to work with ports to identify environmental performance metrics and pursue projects that improve air quality for surrounding communities. We encourage ports and port stakeholders to strive to be good neighbors by committing to transparency and environmental performance improvement, especially when it comes to protecting the health of their communities.

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