From his balcony above Marseille’s port, Jean-Pierre Eyraud has a prime view of the giant, luxury cruise liners that dock in the city bringing 1.5 million passengers a year. But since Eyraud was diagnosed four years ago with throat cancer – a diagnosis several others in his neighbourhood by the port have also had – he watches with a sense of dread as the floating holiday palaces drop off day-trippers. He and environmental campaigners fear the air pollution caused by cruise ships burning fuel all day at the port is choking Marseille’s citizens along the coast. “The paradox is that in Marseille we love all form of ships – we watch them leave with a kind of longing, they are symbols of freedom with the sea as an infinite expanse,” Eyraud said. “But at the same time, I don’t want ships to kill me.” Eyraud, 69, who lives above the cruise ship docking area in northern Marseille, is in remission from cancer. His sister, who lived nearby, died of cancer three years ago aged 56. A childhood friend was also diagnosed, as well as her sister. Eyraud, who began work in a factory aged 15 and later became an artist, has never smoked and was very fit, diving and mountain hiking. “We’ve noticed that the cancer cases here began emerging in the years after the cruise ship boom, as the ships got bigger and more arrived,” he said. “I’m worried about the ships’ fuel and the air pollution. I used to grow herbs on my balcony, but now I’m too scared to eat them.”
Eyraud’s neighbourhood association is campaigning against shipping pollution and warning of the health impact for people living in port areas where cruise ships dock – a growing worry in other destinations such as Venice and Barcelona. He and other environmentalists in Marseille want to force a move to cleaner energy and to tighten rules on the levels of ultra-fine particles in the air. Cruise ship engines are kept running all day in port to meet the energy needs of the floating hotels. There has been no study on a link between shipping pollution in Marseille and specific health issues such as cancer. But the Brussels-based Transport and Environment group estimate that about 50,000 people a year in Europe die prematurely because of pollution from the shipping sector as a whole. “We want everyone to know about this, particularly tourists,” Eyraud said. “And we want them to start asking environmental questions while on board these ships which are meant for pleasure.” Large ships run on heavy fuel oil, which is permitted to contain higher sulphur levels than road fuel. When cruise liners dock in EU ports, they are legally required to switch to a cleaner diesel, with lower sulphur levels. But campaigners say the sulphur levels are still too high, resulting in emissions of fine particles and sulphur dioxide harmful to human health.
Marseille, desperate to shake off its old stereotypes of drug-smuggling and gang wars, as seen in the 1971 film The French Connection, has reinvented itself as a major tourist destination in the last decade and expected 2 million cruise passengers a year by 2020. It is also one of France’s most polluted cities, mainly because of road traffic and industry. Shipping pollution, including industrial shipping, is estimated to account for up to 10% of the city’s air pollution problem. The culprits include a large number of ferries transporting cars and passengers to Corsica and north African countries including Morocco and Algeria. If locals are targeting cruise ships in particular to lower their pollution levels, it’s because they feel cruise line operators should be moving away from cheap heavy fuel to clean energy and because a kind of floating tourism that suffocates local people living near ports doesn’t sit well with the luxury holiday brochures.
On Monday, in a legal first for the French Mediterranean, a cruise ship captain will stand trial for breaking limits on fuel emissions in Marseille port. The 300-metre L’Azura, which can carry up to 3,000 passengers and boasts several pools, an art gallery, shopping centre and spa, was monitored by port authorities in March. It was found to have broken fuel sulphur limits and was chased down at its next stop on the French Riviera. The captain could face up to a year in prison and a €200,000 fine if convicted. No case has been brought against P&O Cruises, which owns the ship. “This type of check by authorities on a ship would never have happened if we hadn’t focused on the problems of air quality here,” said Stéphane Coppey, of the local federation France Nature Environment, which has been campaigning against maritime air pollution in Marseille.
Richard Hardouin, of the federation, said the key problem was that the Mediterranean does not have the same strict rules on fuel and emissions at sea as agreed in northern waters such as the Baltic. He said this meant older, more polluting ferries that cannot sail further north were instead working Mediterranean routes. “Without regulation down here, the Mediterranean will be used as a kind dustbin,” he said. The push for stricter emissions rules in the Mediterranean has become a prominent political issue in France, and the government is due to publish a report on it later this year. Jean-François Suhas, head of the Marseille Provence Cruise Club, the cruise sector body in Marseille, said, “We’re aware of the concerns around pollution, and it is something we are very focused on. The cruise industry and the port of Marseille have been tackling those issues head-on for four years.” He said the court case showed “no one is getting let off the hook.” The port was working on new technologies, including plugging ships into the electricity supply at a port, to lower emissions, he said. Charles Chanut, a retired doctor, said it was surprising to see the incidence of cancers in the neighbourhood overlooking Marseille’s port. “Air pollution is an important battle for public health,” he said. “We’re not against bringing cruise liners here, they can bring economic benefits, but at least do it cleanly.”
Credit: Angelique Chrisafis for The Guardian, 6 July 2018.