One of the World’s Largest Cruise Ships Is About to Come to Brooklyn. So Will Its Toxic Exhaust.
New York has the only electric solution on the East Coast for idling cruise ships burning toxic diesel fuel, but despite Eric Adams’ commitments, shore power won’t be ready in time.
In December, Mayor Eric Adams announced to great fanfare MSC Cruise’s forthcoming year-round operations from the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal (BCT). The ships, the mayor said, would bring thousands of tourist dollars to New York City.
But the vessels will also bring toxic diesel exhaust to the local community.
Over the course of a single day, a docked and idling cruise ship powered by diesel fuel can emit as much pollution as 34,409 long-haul trucks idling for that same time, according to one analysis.
The Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook is the only port on the east coast with a solution to that problem: shore power. By plugging into the city’s electric grid, cruise ships docked there should be able to keep running without burning diesel.
But because of the terminal’s shore power design and the lack of a regulatory mechanism to compel adoption, the system hasn’t been fully used since its 2016 installation.
In 2022, just about a third of the ships visiting the port have plugged in, according to the EDC. The rest have continued to burn fuel.
That will certainly be the case when the MSC’s Meraviglia, one of the largest cruise ships in the world, first launches from Red Hook this coming April. It won’t be able to plug in because of where its connector is located, leading it to spew pollution into Red Hook’s air.
In April 2021, when Adams was still Brooklyn Borough President, he pledged funds to buy the equipment necessary to fix the terminal’s shore power system, so more ships could use it.
That hasn’t happened yet, though Jeff Holmes, a spokesperson for the Economic Development Corporation, which administers the BCT, said ordering is in the works, with installation expected by the end of the year.
“That’s a very big timeframe,” said Councilmember Alexa Aviles, who represents the neighborhood. “It’s something that is certainly important to the Red Hook community because we all really know how polluting cruise ships that are burning fossil fuel are.”
Adam Armstrong, a musician who lived near the docks for almost two decades and became an activist against ship pollution, questioned why the work hadn’t been done.
“To bring ships into Brooklyn that can’t plug in and subject the population to unnecessarily dangerous diesel fumes — it’s just wrong… It’s worse than embarrassing because it’s actually having a public health impact and a climate impact,” said Armstrong, who now lives in Bay Ridge. “I raised my kids in the shadow of those cruise ships. I still wonder what the health effects on them have been after being exposed to all that stuff.”
The Plug Won’t Fit
Diesel emissions can be especially harmful to the respiratory health of people who live in coastal areas where cruise ships often visit. Exposure to the pollution can cause or exacerbate conditions like asthma, as well as heart and lung disease.
Though carbon emissions from marine vehicles amount to a small fraction of the city’s total transportation emissions, they contribute to the warming of the planet, which is making extreme storms worse.
BCT’s $21 million shore power system was meant to eliminate roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide as getting nearly 300 cars off the road for a year, according to a 2011 press release from the Bloomberg administration — as well as 95 tons of nitrous oxide and 6.5 tons of particulate matter.
But as the New York Times reported in 2019, there’s no regulatory mechanism that compels ships to plug into the system — and that’s if they are able to.
At BCT, the shore power crane’s sockets align with the electrical sockets on the Queen Mary 2, run by Cunard, and some of the smaller cruise ships run by Princess — all of which have docked in Red Hook. But other ships don’t align, as is the case for MSC’s Meraviglia.
In order to allow more ships to plug into the system, EDC plans to make $1 million worth of upgrades over the next year as part of a $30 million capital investment, Holmes said. That $1 million includes the $750,000 Adams committed in 2021 to pay for a “cable positioning device” to facilitate ships’ connections.
A spokesperson for EDC said the agency is in the process of ordering that equipment and plans to install it by the end of the year.
“We would like shore power because we have a strong sense that it will … minimize emissions, partially combustible hydrocarbons and other associated diesel combustion-related emissions from on-ship generators,” said Hildegaard Link, chair of the Resilient Red Hook committee.
Until then, the ships that are set up to connect to shore power but aren’t compatible with what’s at BCT will burn fuel while idling.
That’s true for MSC’s Meraviglia, which, according to the EDC, has a connection located on the side of the vessel that won’t be closest to the pier when it docks — making it unable to plug in. MSC Cruises did not respond to requests for comment.
Briana Latter, a spokesperson for Princess Cruises, said all 15 ships in the company’s fleet are set up to connect to shore power, but until EDC upgrades the system, its larger cruise ships cannot use it.
Latter said the company’s policy is to connect to shore power “as often as possible, providing that the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal shore power connection points are suitably positioned to connect our vessels.”
A spokesperson for Cunard said it uses shore power but did not answer a question about how often.
What About Manhattan?
Also affecting the use of shore power at BCT is the availability of electricity from the grid, according to a 2022 report on the technology by the Environmental Protection Agency. During times of high electrical demand — like during heat waves — the shore power system, which has no backup, may not work.
Con Edison, the electric utility serving New York City, has received no requests for system redesigns or upgrades at BCT, spokesperson Jamie McShane told THE CITY.
While cruise ships are expected to visit BCT 66 times in 2023, they’re due to be at the Manhattan Cruise Terminal 141 times this year, according to the NY Cruises schedule.
Earlier this month the Economic Development Corporation allocated $15 million in capital funds originally earmarked for the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal to the Manhattan Cruise Terminal, as THE CITY recently reported. But so far none of that money is earmarked for shore power there.
In the same 2022 report, the EPA concluded the Manhattan location’s complex local grid would result in high costs for shore power and the “constrained” nature of the terminal itself would make installing shore power challenging.
The EDC will undertake a feasibility study to determine what it’d need to install shore power there.
Not Just Cruise Ships
Air pollution is an issue that’s top of mind for Red Hook locals and the officials that represent them, as they’ve been working to control the proliferation of e-commerce warehouses in the community, which deliver traffic as well as packages.
“We’ve got all these trucks coming down Van Brunt Street now and then we’re going to have the additional pollution from the cruise terminals,” said Jim Tampakis, who runs the maritime supplier Marine Spares International in Red Hook. “It would be nice if we can start looking into each one of these headaches that we have here in the neighborhood.”
The city does not conduct air monitoring in Red Hook itself, which has been something Aviles, the Council member, has been pushing for.
The expansion of the cruise terminal — increasing its ability to accommodate more and larger ships — without a shore power system that works for all ships has added to some feelings of frustration and mistrust toward EDC.
Carolina Salguero, executive director of the nonprofit PortSide — which helped to build a playground that EDC evicted in September — said she wants “to see the EDC’s promise of shore power fulfilled plus all the other EDC promises,” as well as “things they haven’t promised but that would make them effective at economic development and not just extractive in their relationship to Red Hook.”