A big pollution problem with the Australian cruise industry has become an election issue in Sydney

White Bay cruise terminal is causing headaches, literally, for local residents.

When the former New South Wales Labor government moved Sydney’s second cruise ship terminal further up the harbour, from the Barangaroo redevelopment to White Bay, below the residential peninsula of Balmain, it made a huge, short-sighted mistake that’s turned the city’s $2.3 billion cruise industry into a political football in the lead up to the state’s March 28 election.

There’s no shore-to-ship power at the site. That means the 100-plus cruise liners using the berth this summer are forced to keep engines running to power the ships. Local residents say the fumes are making them sick, with some residents claiming they now get headaches they’ve never had before.

Which leads to the industry’s other big problem: the fuel it burns, which has also become an election issue, with Sydney shock jock Alan Jones firmly behind the Balmain residents in their fight for clean air.

Ships cruising in Australian waters run on low-quality, cheap diesel known as bunker fuel, which is high in sulfur, full of heavy metals and a serious pollutant when burned. The US, Canada and EU have much tighter controls on fuel quality, with just 0.1% sulfur allowed. Sulfur levels in Australia are up to 35 times higher at the permissible level of 3.5%, which is deemed carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation. The problem for Balmain residents is that the peninsula rises to the same height ships’ funnels, so the black smoke they pump out is drifting directly into homes.

Local residents have been campaigning on the issue ever since Labor announced it was moving the terminal, against the wishes of the industry, to White Bay, and have lived with the fallout for nearly two years ever since the $57 million terminal opened in April 2013.

And while the local seat in controlled by Greens MP Jamie Parker, both the ALP and Liberals are scrambling to offer solutions just a fortnight out from the election.

Labor leader Luke Foley made get tough noises on the cruise industry last week without acknowledging he’s attempting to clean up a mess of his own party’s making. The ALP has now promised to create an “emissions control area” around White Bay, bringing sulfur levels down the international standard of 0.1%, as well as banning overnight berthing at the terminal and ramping up penalties for noise pollution.

A NSW upper house inquiry report, released last month, recommended shore-to-ship power and Foley’s pledged to look into it. The report also labelled the move to White Bay a mistake and bagged the Environmental Protection Authority for sitting on its hands during the approval process.

Balmain residents have been pushing the EPA to act ever since, to little effect, although NSW environment minister Rob Stokes says he’s been working on the issue.

On Wednesday, Stokes matched Labor’s proposal to cut sulfur emissions to 0.1%, setting a deadline of July 2016 for action, as well as promising a review of emissions standard for other shipping too. He’s been pushing for a national approach with the other states and the federal government to create a clean air agreement and an analysis of installing ship-to-shore power in every major NSW cruise industry port is underway and due by the end of 2015. Even the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay does not have shore-to-ship power for liners the size of a small town of up to 3500 people.

But the cruise industry isn’t happy, with Tourism and Transport Forum CEO Margy Osmond saying they’re being penalised for Labor’s mistake, describing the new mandatory standard as “out of the blue”, claiming the 16-month warning doesn’t give the industry enough time to change.

She says the current pre-election bidding war puts a $2.3 billion industry and 10,500 jobs at risk.

“Neither party has explained how it intends to ensure that cruise ships have access to the necessary supplies of soon to be required low sulphur fuel which is currently unavailable in large quantities in Sydney,” Osmond said.

“Nor has any consideration been given to the investment cruise ship companies like Carnival have started to make to introduce ‘scrubbing’ technology. This technology is being phased in voluntarily to their ships over the coming four years, specifically to deliver much lower emissions.

“This type of decision making, designed as a ‘quick-fix’, is poor public policy and has created uncertainty for the cruise ship industry at the most popular destination for the sector.”

But for Balmain residents, some of whom have sold there homes and moved out of the area, a fix to the pollution problems damaging their health can’t come soon enough.

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